Saturday, June 9, 2007

Rounding up the Wayward Words

Word Choice and Finding Your Voice

Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.
-- Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner

Man, do I love words. Words have such power.

I’ve been known to complain bitterly about punctuation, but for now, I’ll leave comma faults and exclamation point addiction for The Punctuation Police, and concentrate on what word choices do to people.

I think about words and sounds. A lot.

Take “despot” for example. I don’t mean take a despot home with you for a BLT and lemonade. But doesn’t the word “despot” sound like someone who would try to lord it all over the premises? The word hisses and spits. More than a dictator, martinet, or warlord does.

But the “esses” in these lines of Poe below don’t hit you over the head or leave a gob of phlegm on your face like the horking despot above.

Listen. Say these out loud:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before
(from The Raven)

Listen some more: Silken. Sad. Uncertain. Rustling.

It’s the words that are moving, just out of vision. It could be a soft summer breeze or an evil spirit sneaking, sidling, snaking our way.

Naming Characters

Even people’s names evoke reaction. The character heroes in romance novels are not named Elmer, or Dwight, or Archibald. More likely they are Lance, or Paolo, or Dirk. Also, they are tall. Stumpy is not a word seen in romance novels. The bosomy heroines, with flowing tresses are not Ethel, or Gladys, or Velma. They are Destiny, Franchesca, or Rain.

A Seattle reporter for NPR has the BEST, most mellifluous name I’ve ever heard. Get this: Ruby DiLuna. Oooh. That is magical. I want it for my very own. Or at least for a character in a story. Sigh. If my name were Ruby DiLuna I would have had a very different life. And better hair.

Above I was concentrating on the part sound lends when conveying meaning.

Word Sounds

Turning to the coincidence of words that rhyme, we find something mighty peculiar about a sound.

His face turned ashen when receiving the news.

Uh, oh. That can’t be good. Whatever the news might be, ashen signals disaster ahead.

In fact, when you consider all the words that rhyme with “ash”, you’ve got a violent situation on your hands just thinking about the possibilities:

smash, thrash, mash, crash, lash, clash, bash, gnash, trash, gash, slash—even rash isn’t too pleasant, whether it’s hasty or itchy. Hash is all chopped up. No, no. An ashen reaction is clearly not boding well.

Be Particular

You cannot be too particular when choosing your words. You shouldn’t settle for the first familiar phrase that comes to mind. Likely it’s stale, it’s been laying around so long.

I used to worry that I might have a...wee problem. An obsession of sorts. I wondered if I should join a Twelve Step Program.

Picture it.

Hello. My name is Beverly. And I am a ‘tweaker’.

I've been tweaking for a long time now.

Hi, Beverly!

For you late comers, the other kind of Tweaker 12 Step meets down the hall. Sorry about the meth problem. Can’t help you here.

My tweaking problem started when I realized that nothing having to do with words is ever finished. It might be done, it might be turned in, but it's not finished. So....whenever I can...I grab the chance to make it better. When you have your own blog, it’s even harder to control. The Internet understands the need, the hunger, of a True Tweaker way more than print outlets can manage.

Tweakers sneak into their home offices after everyone is asleep. We don't want them to know. The dogs know. But they keep close counsel. And they’re biscuit sluts.

What would those who love me think of me? Tweaking in the dark, turning the computer screen to a corner so no one can see what I’m doing. Not downloading porn or having a simultaneous cyber affair with eight guys strewn all over the country who all seem to be named Dylan or Ed.

Nope. I’ve come forward, because I know there are others like me. We Tweak. We love words. We want to improve our work. A new day brings a new perspective and a chance to make things better.

Sometimes righting a wrong or a bad move is a hard thing to do when we’ve really mucked up in our every day lives...ignored someone...made a remark that hurt and we didn’t even know it. But our vision and the way we say it is up on the screen available for reaction. Often it’s our own.

Are we supposed to sit there and just watch a limp phrase dangle in the wind? Can’t we go in and get our verbs to agree? Surely we have to take pity on on the apostrophe that doesn’t know where it’s supposed to be. How about a better analogy that wandered over and bit me on the knee? Got to get it off my person and into an argument slot where it can do some good and not pester me, with “Woulda, shoulda, coulda.”


We are working on our craft. Say it loud, say it proud. Repeat after me, “I TWEAK and I don’t care who knows it.”

Thank you very much. This meeting is over.

Hot cookies await in the vestibule. There’s punch, and a special Long Island Tea you might like to try.



Roberta said...

Love _your_ words, Beverly.

Lily and Jane - also full of talent. I met them at a booksigning in D.C. years back.

LabMom said...

I am the Punctuation Police, and I'm here to ticket you. "Tweakers of the world, unite!" Direct address, comma, verb. You owe one box of chocolate Pop Tarts. Please pay the officer when you see her in the fall.

And the dogs are not biscuit sluts; they are biscuit whores. Sluts do it because they want to; whores do it for compensation.

So there.