Words

As a writer it’s important to love words and to understand and care about their shades of meaning.

Something that I’ve observed about English is that often it’s the smaller words that have the most meanings. For example ‘get’ has a very long listing in the thesaurus. More than thirty different words. I had an English teacher who said that it is lazy to use the word get in writing. She might have had a point. Yet some really enormous words have no shades of meaning at all. For example, the adjective petrichor describes the distinctive sent that rises from the ground after it rains on dry earth. I think it’s wonderful that there is a word for that smell.

Between the large and small there are all manner of great words. For example fluffy brings to mind clouds, cotton candy, and Persian cats, totally innocent. Yet in the porn industry the person who makes sure that the male porn star is ready for action between takes is called a fluffer. Kind of gross but so descriptive. The minute I heard the word used in that context I knew what it meant. No description necessary.

People often argue that words like fluffer or moobs (a combination of man and boobs referring to men who have large breast tissue) aren’t really real, because they don’t follow the ‘rules’ but if you think about it, language is constantly evolving in order to pass information from one person to another and people don’t care about rules and new words often catch on by being descriptive of things. In fact English might be described as a language of exceptions.

Dandy was a regency insult for someone who paid too much attention to dressing himself. It was an insult because although appearance was important, society did not think that it was admirable to spend all ones time and mental energy on something so trivial.

What I love about the insult is that it has various shades of meaning depending on who is using it. If the person using it is a dandy, and they say to a friend “You look quite the dandy.” it depends on how the friend feels about the dandy weather it will be an insult or perhaps a complement. In fact dandy is now not an insult. The poison has been sucked out of the sting. To say something is dandy is to say it is good. Although usually it is said with a bit of an ironic twist of sarcasm. “That’s just dandy.” is a reply to being told that your car needs new breaks or you have to find a new job. Perhaps the sting of the insult is gone but the word retains a bit of its negative connotation.

Just because a word becomes popular doesn’t mean it will stay popular. The ones that stick seem to be concepts that resonate with people.

Cool is an obvious word who’s meaning was turned on its head. In fact modern kids still use it. It never went the way of such trendy words like groovy, tubular or bogus. Although sometimes those words resurface and can be used ironically to ‘date’ a character in a book or movie. Now a-days advertising trys to influence this process, but the modern American is more immune or perhaps too inundated by pop culture for such ploys to firmly take root the way that advertising could in its infancy. Those original terms of products stuck fast: Kleenex, Jell-o, Q-tip and it is most annoying to the modern writer that such terms cannot be used without permission, in even a short story.

Its probably not necessary to know the etymology of every word that you use when writing but it can be lots of fun if you enjoy that sort of thing. Still it is important to make sure that the words you use convey the right meaning to the audience you are aiming for.

I try not dumb down my vocabulary but I do try to put appropriate words in characters mouths. For example when writing a story set in the regency I would not use modern slang unless one of my characters was from this time. Of course my first draft is peppered with words that are close to what I meant but in my final draft I try and choose the right one that best conveys my ideas.

To sum up I don’t think writing would be fun for people who hate words.

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