Aren’t words wonderful? Some may argue (and rightly so) that the English language is crazy and difficult and full of rules that are just as often broken as they are adhered to. But I’m in awe of just how much can be said with all the delightful words that our language contains. We’ve adapted and co-opted words from all kinds of places and times and made them work for us. I have an utter reverence for what can be conveyed with the right use of vocabulary.
I think of our language as a toolkit full of a variety of tools, each just the right size and shape and weight to fit any job. But what dismays me is that most of our society today only carries around a mini-kit with a few basics (hammer, screwdriver, a few nails) which they use for every single need. I try to lug around the jumbo version of the toolkit (even the whole garage full of cupboards and shelves, sometimes) so I’ll be able to fit just the right tool to whatever I need to accomplish.
That’s what makes me particularly enamored of certain authors’ writing. Some authors are great storytellers, with vivid imaginations and tons of neat ideas for stories, but they’re not great writers (Stephenie Meyer has said this about herself, for example, and she’s absolutely right). But some authors can tell any story but make it compelling and beautiful because of the words they select from their kits and how they put them together in seemingly fresh ways.
I love to use my thesaurus. It’s full of options to help find just the right word to convey the perfect meaning. But as with any tool, it must be used correctly. Many people have the mistaken notion that they can take out a thesaurus and pick willy-nilly any word out of the synonyms listed. Wrong. Each word in our language has a very precise meaning that, if the writer or speaker and the reader and listener both know it, can communicate meaning as well as is possible with language (of course, communication is a whole other topic; let’s just say that spoken or written language is only a small part of communication, so since that’s the case, we’d better be sure to be careful with the words we do use so we can communicate as effectively as possible). The ideal use of the thesaurus is to stimulate our thinking and allow our brain to go through its options and then select the best one. We still must know the exact meaning of each synonym, because synonyms are merely similar words, not usually exact matches. Even identical twins have slight differences in appearance, voices, and certainly personalities, don’t they?
So as a writer, I like to look at the thesaurus when I have a general idea of what I’m trying to express. Glancing through the list of synonyms of any given word can help my brain to make connections and eventually say, Aha! That’s exactly what I’d like to say. As an editor of other people’s writing, I have to use the thesaurus to help them come up with the word that’s going to say what they obviously mean to say in the context of their topic and sentence or paragraph. I often think as I’m reading someone else’s raw work, I do not think that means what you think it means (thanks to Inigo and Vizzini of “The Princess Bride”). Sometimes their efforts are unwittingly comical; sometimes they could even be potentially offensive, egregiously misleading or just plain wrong.
Given that I do a lot of editing, then, and I see many misuses of language, I am so appreciative of the writers who have honed their craft and lovingly put to use the full toolkit of the language. Each word, carefully chosen, can instantly create a picture in my mind, complete with emotions and sensations. Every word has nuances and layers of meaning, and used well can convey those layers in just one perfect word, allowing a writer to write concisely but elegantly. A writer with a shallow portable toolkit will have to use many more simple words to get a message across that could be portrayed nicely with one or two words in the hands of a skilled writer with an excellent grasp of vocabulary.
I’m not saying that we should all use “hoity-toity” vocabulary at all times or words that are just rarely used and never understood. But there are so many options that are rich in meaning that can communicate effectively that people don’t bother to use. As a parent, I’ve always used my regular vocabulary to speak to my children, rather than trying to “dumb down” what I say in baby talk. I might rephrase something in simpler language so they can understand, but then I’ll also use the richer words so they can hear them in context and learn. And as they read, just as I did growing up and still do now, they (and I) can learn new words just through context and, if they’re so inclined, looking them up in the dictionary.
Even as I write, I’m now self-conscious about how I wrote. Did I convey exactly what I wanted to express? Did I use just the right words? I hope so. I’m not one of the most gifted writers out there, but I hope that I can at least say what I mean to say. And my hat’s off to those amazing writers who have transported me because of their judicious use of language.