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What's in a Word? Part I

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:26 PM

Language serves us best when we are honest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The question often asked -- "What's in a word?" -- is worth thinking about. Mark Twain talked about the use of "lightning" and "lightning bug," and how very different any two sentences would be to make room for the presence within it of one versus the other.

Finding the right word or set of words is a critical part of our job as writer or as editor. Our language is huge. The choices are many. And yet, not really. There usually is at least one better choice for you, depending on the style of writing in your manuscript and what the subject is and for whom you are writing and for what reason you are creating the manuscript and for what you are trying to convey not only properly but effectively, efficiently, and even memorably.

Words That Are Clear, Attracting, and Appropriate

I offer a sample of words used effectively, efficiently, and memorably. They were written by a remarkable pianist, Jeremy Denk, whose career I have followed since he was a student in Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music and then a teacher there and, now, a widely admired performer who happens not only to dexterously handle a keyboard and play music on it with profound wisdom but has the ability to express what he does musically in language, in words that can stun for clarity and appropriateness.

Recently, one of Denk's it's-a-pleasure-to-read essays found its way into the Sunday New York Times under the title "Caressing Notes with a Purr." If I may, I'll quote a section of it to give you an idea of how masterfully he verbalizes what he wants and needs to say. There is perfection in his choice of words:

"A vivid memory from the early 1990s: My piano teacher was giving me hell for not observing some pedal markings in Chopin when he reached for his lighter, to smoke away the aggravation I'd caused. Mid-reach he stopped, suddenly inspired. 'Chopin was sensitive,' he said. 'Like a cat.'

"This teacher was Gyorgy Sebok, a great Hungarian piano guru with an unpronounceable name, who resembled less a cat than a sort of profound armadillo. As he spoke, he made his sausage-fingered hands walk across his desk, like nimble and graceful paws.

"Despite my suspicion of cats," Denk continues, "this remark struck me, as did an admiration for the subtlety of Chopin down in the foot-operated region of my instrument. He made the foot into a third hand, and brought the lowly pedal -- a tool for letting strings ring, for letting the piano resonate like the harp-in-a-closet that it is -- to an unimaginable level of refinement."

"Smoke away the aggravation I'd caused." "Resembled less a cat than a sort of profound armadillo." "Made his sausage-fingered hands walk across his desk, like nimble and graceful paws." "He made the foot into a third hand."

The words were cleverly, but never too cleverly, chosen. They are clear and attracting and appropriate.

Words That Paint a Picture

Manny Hernandez, writing in the New York Times about "Scenes Along a Houston Highway Show a City Determined to Recover," offers this cogent and potent passage, among many. It contains the right words to explain and describe a scene and situation: "The view from up here on the highway is unromantic and brutally efficient, not unlike the overall aesthetic of a city synonymous with air-conditioning and AstroTurf. It is all pavement, sky, Jersey barrier, billboard and Long John Silver's.

"But down below on West Road, another Houston goes largely unseen. A homeless man who lives beneath the overpass with his wife walked to a nearby dollar store. They had $8 between them. When he returned, they had $7. He bought a white-handled broom to sweep their patch of sidewalk. 'We stay here, man,' said Tracy Moore, 32, his belongings next to him in a Home Depot shopping cart. 'I don't want people to think that we're trashy because of all the trash from the flood.'"

What's in the words of the reporter? What's in the words quoted from the homeless man refusing to be a flood victim? The right ones, honest ones, words that bring the reader close and cause understanding. The facts chosen to express the nature of a flood-ravaged city. The words chosen to express the plight of a man who has experienced the disaster. Everything helps paint a picture of what has been happening.

On the Other Hand...

What about words that fail? That's a topic I'll lead off with next time.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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