Just as a doctor has instruments, a musician music, and a builder tools, so readers and writers have the tools of their trade -- words.
I think I’ve been in love with words ever since I can remember. There are words that have power. One evening, I watched “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie was produced about the time of the Second World War because Americans needed to feel patriotic. Movie producers and politicians knew that words used in the right way could move a nation into action.
Think of the words associated with the founding of our country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights among these being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . .” “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .”With malice toward none, with charity for all. . .”
There are mysterious words, words with rhythm and words that “trip along lightly on the tongue. . .” There are words that are a challenge, like medulla oblongata and Azerbijan. Some words define themselves by their very pronunciation: ennui (boredom, listlessness), writhing ( to twist as in pain, struggle or embarrassment), gotterdammerung (German word used in the English language for a turbulent ending of a regime or an institution). Others by their brevity say all that has to be said: faith, hope, love, death, life.
From the charm of the individual words, the writer and/or reader moves on to combinations of words that fascinate, like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Or the words that lead into realms or places of the unreal or fantastic: “Last night I dreamed I returned again to Manderley.”
Descriptions are the judicious choice of words to evoke a feeling, an image or a place. Masters of the craft of writing are those who search for just the right word. Poet Kathleen Norris said a poem had taken her as long as two years to write because she needed just the right word.
I know my love for mystery novels comes from their way of evoking a sense of place: Brother Cadfael in the Middle Ages, Miss Marple in Saint Marymede -- watching the comings and goings of her neighbors -- or a new mystery set among the Kiowa people of the mid-1800s. The Navajo-Hopi reservations and the work of Joe Leaphorn in the Tony Hillerman mysteries, or the works of Dashiell Hammett in the back alleys and dark streets of the new cities of midcentury America.
Words have the power to kill. The fifth commandment, “You shall not kill” refers to more than mortally injuring someone. It is killing hopes and dreams, the reputation, the self-esteem, the purpose for living of the intended victim. The epistle of James in the New Testaments says: How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. . .no one can tame the tongue. . .from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . .”
So why, with the wonderful storehouse full of millions of words and their combinations do we grant such high favor in our society to “gutter talk.” Why are people who speak properly when expressing their feelings derided for showing off? For years Readers’ Digest magazine has attempted to improve our language by the feature “Increasing your word power,” offering a good way to practice learning words that make our language more meaningful and colorful.
Of course, the best writing is simple and succinct, and one does not need a 25 cent word when a 5 cent word will do, but there is a subtle beauty in words that make one cry, that lift one’s spirits, that give one courage, that can challenge people beyond themselves.
Thoughts on “words”:
It is with a word as with an arrow -- once let it loose and it does not return.
Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them. Bitter words make them bitter and wrathful words makes them wrathful. Kind words also produce their own image on men’s souls; and a beautiful image it is. They sooth, and quiet, and comfort the hearer. -- Pascal
There is no power like that of oratory. Caesar controlled men by exciting their fears. Cicero by captivating their affections and swaying their passions. The influence of the one perished with its author, that of the other continues to this day. -- Henry Clay
There are five tests of the evidence of education -- correctness and precision in the use of the mother tongue; refined and gentle manners, the result of fixed habits of thought and action; sound standards of appreciation of beauty and of worth; and a character based on those standards; power and habit of reflection.