In love with words.
October 10, 2010 § 1 Comment
When I was young I kept a list of my favorite words.
Some, like shimmer, freckle, dazzle, thump, rustle, were there because of the way they turned on a quick visual image or made a sound.
A few sounded like what they meant: bubble, wash.
Words remain my constant companions and friends. They are my way out of my own head and into yours—and vice versa.
I still make word lists. Sometimes I collect words that come out of a particular profession. The first book I ever wrote had a character who spent years with a small traveling circus, or what is known more descriptively in the business as, “a mud show.”
Here are a few terms that belong to that world. “Donnikers”—that’s circus for porta-potties. “First of Mays” are the grunts the show picks up while on the road. When they quit it’s called “blowing the show” or “taking a mope.” The punch sold on the midway–a mixture of whatever fizzy liquids happen to be on hand–is called “flookum.”
I also like words that team up to make colorful phrases, particularly regionalisms. They usually have a superficial meaning, and then a truer one that lies beneath the surface.
I was doing a school visit in Dalton Georgia, out for dinner with some of the teachers, when the southernism, “bless your heart,” came up. They informed me that “bless your heart” is what you say to someone who is in some way defective, deluded or both: “You think he’s gonna marry you? Well, bless your heart.”
So far I’ve been talking about good words, colorful, quirky and muscular words. Some words are dead zones. Drop one in the middle of a sentence and it isn’t long before the dead zone spreads, and the piece of writing becomes…a report. “The administration has proposed a new initiative concerning the implementation of the mission statement.”
What makes that sentence so deadly? The words are colorless and flavorless—not a single picture comes to mind. Initiative? Implementation?? Mission statement??? I could forgive the words for being bone dry and stupefying if only they weren’t so self-important. It is just plain sad that these are the kind of words you have to use when want to prove you know what you’re talking about.
The stuff of life can’t be expressed in words like these. Life is juicy and full of sap; it’s messy and noisy and smells like fresh baked bread or a dumpster gone ripe in the sun.
If life can be captured in words, the words have to be up to the task. Take a utilitarian word like “walk” and think of all the far-more descriptive words with which you could replace it:
Spend a second with each word and picture the person doing the sauntering, striding, strutting or limping. Each would be a distinct and different person, each going to a different place, each on their own mission. Got a minute? Try: stagger, clip, swagger, pace, ramble, hitch, careen, mosey, range, totter, wander….
I’m lucky. Starting out as a kid who collected words I grew up to be a fiction writer, so the responsibility for, “The implementation of the mission statement” falls to someone else. My job is to make the reader see, hear, smell, feel, and believe. And all I have to work with is words.
In parting, let me leave you with a few (these are so good I’ve been saving them up for last): pickle, ukulele, frangipani, cockeyed—with a pocktful of words like these how could you possibly go wrong?