FINDING THE EXACTLY PERFECTLY PRECISELY RIGHT WORD
Thing Two, age 4, is angry. Her mother—my daughter—has told her "no!" and has explained why Thing Two cannot have what she wants. Much crying and whining ensues. Thing Two stamps her feet. Her mother patiently explains that she is only running up to the store for milk. She will be back soon. Thing Two will stay with me.
In truth, mom is going out of her mind and wants two minutes alone. Thing Two is at the stage where she must see and hear her mother at all times. This will only be remedied when she is surgically removed from my daughter’s hip. Hysterical crying is next on the agenda. When nothing works and my daughter is edging toward the door, Thing Two delivers a four-year-old’s worst criticism: “Mommy, you’re a big fat poopy head.” Then the coup de gras: “You’re hideous.”
Thing Two loves words. She adores the Fancy Nancy books because of the big vocabulary and the ooh-la-la French. She loves going to the library and dives into the books as soon as we get in the car. She is soaking up the sounds of alphabet letters in her pre-school. She’s my book buddy. While she is expanding her vocabulary beyond the usual playground epithets, words like poop, scat, dooky, etc. figure in her daily language, particularly when Thing One, age 10, gets in on the game. Nothing reduces little girls to laughter and rolling around on the floor like an unusual, creative use of a common playground word.
But “hideous”? Her mother and I exchange glances. Where did that come from? we wonder. We struggle not to laugh. A part of me—the part that is not a disciplinarian—is proud. I love words, too. I love learning the etymology of words. And while I don’t want to bore readers with my presumptuous erudition, I want to use the right words for the right moments. I want the words to be intentional. That means a lot of head scratching. A lot of striking out and erasing. A lot of searching online. I can certainly empathize with famous wit Dorothy Parker, who said, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
A former member of my writing critique group earned the nickname of the Verb Nazi. During our critique sessions, she was always on the hunt for our use of boring flaccid verbs. Pump up the action, she advised. Now when I write, I keep the Verb Nazi in mind and look for the right verb to engage the reader. Adverbs, a part of speech that used to appear more frequently in writing, is now, like the un-planet Pluto, out of favor. Even best-selling author Stephen King says “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I’m not that dogmatic. I think good adverbs can work, but they should be used sparingly. Ditto adjectives. The use of too many adjectives requires the reader to slog through language as thick as treacle.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain wrote, is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.
So, finding the right word is important. Using that word in the right form and in the right moment is important. Which brings me back to Thing Two.
I try to reason with her. “You know, in our family, we do not use hateful words. Just like hateful hands, words can be hateful if they hurt someone’s feelings. It’s better to tell us how you are feel and then we’ll talk about it. How do you feel right now?”
Her mother and I exchange glances again. Well done. She gets the concept.
“And why are you angry?” I ask.
“Because Mommy is a big fat poopy head. And she’s hideous.”
Ah well. Vocabulary is a work in progress. For writers, too.