15 June 2008

The importance of the right word

The importance of the right word -- poets know about this more than anybody. Le mot juste as the French would say. Not just the right word but the perfect word. We scrabble around for it. Cross out "cross out" and replace it with "strike through". Hmm, not quite. Perhaps "erase"? "Delete"? We think about the word's denotation and then what other words or ideas it connotes. Then there's the rhythm of the word, the sound of it, how it feels in our mouth. Words give our writing flavour and texture. The combination of words gives a writer style.

But what about when words go wrong? When they go wrong at the most basic level there can be a comedic effect. Take, for instance, my son. Yesterday, we were driving him off to an exam, and he was talking about the history assignment he had just submitted, which was to make his own newspaper (or at least the front page). Anyway, he was telling us he called it The daily brothel, and then finished with: "What exactly is a brothel anyway?"

Hmm. Too funny. His face, when we told him, was a study in mixed emotions: amazement, embarrassment (okay, more mortification than embarrassment), disbelief -- various other things, no doubt.

I like his newspaper title. I imagine a gossipy mag, with a mishmash of articles all mixed in together (obviously drawing on the messy house as a brothel simile/metaphor). But of course this is not how he sees it. And the lesson here is that we should all check meanings first. "Body" and "cadaver" are not interchangeable. A cadaver is a body, but a body is only ever a cadaver under certain circumstances. Not sure which -- then don't use it without checking the dictionary. The same with "horse" and "pony". All ponies are horses but not all horses are ponies. (And then there's the "galloway" in between...)

I love my dictionary. I live in it when I'm editing. Less so when I'm writing. But if I am writing and my brain supplies that word that I'm not a hundred per cent sure of, then I'll hit the dictionary. Doesn't mean I won't ever get it wrong -- there may, of course, be that word I am one hundred per cent sure of that doesn't mean exactly what I think it means. There are no guarantees against that. And of course meanings shift. I'm a great believer in preserving the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested", but it doesn't mean the dictionary supports my view. I sometimes think that dictionaries are too permissive in what they allow, but they do aim to reflect current usage, so perhaps I just need to get over it. In the meantime though, I'll be running my finger down the columns, looking for that word, and only ever using my thesaurus with a dictionary alongside it!

No comments: