Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Word is...

I have this memory of when I first seriously started novel writing. I read an article or a web-post or something—my memory is a bit blurry—what I do recall was that the article talked a lot about words, about how each word has its own unique meaning. While the meanings of words may be similar or may be used interchangeably, no two words mean exactly the same thing. They may seem like they mean the same thing, but in some situations one word will be more appropriate than the other.

It was like a light went off in my head. I realized that words weren’t just words…they were tools.

I think one of the reasons I am such a slow writer is that I am constantly searching for the right word—usually in my head, but sometimes in the Thesaurus. Wait…yes I know…I’m not supposed to worry about things like that in a draft. I know that, I remind myself of that, and yet….

The challenge in writing is that words mean different things to different people. It depend on the person’s filters—filters include the experiences, feelings and values that shape us (culture, socio-economic status, education, location, etc). To each person every word has its own connotations, implications, associations, and impressions.

It is interesting, though, how few people pay attention to the words they chose to use. Think about an email you received, what you hear in the evening news, the lyrics of the songs on the radio. Some of it just doesn't make sense (have you listened to Lady Gaga?).

Some people use the same words all the time: It was a really big storm with really big snow drifts and we had a really hard time getting in to work today. I mean…sigh…seriously? Isn’t there a rule against using the same word more than once in a sentence? There are so many words out there why don’t we use more of them!

According to Oxford, at the very least there are “a quarter of a million distinct English words” []. This doesn’t include technical or regional words or words not yet added to the published dictionary. It also doesn’t take into consideration the various meanings of words (i.e. homonyms or slang uses) or even words borrowed from other languages.

Don’t even get me started on chat room talk (BRB, LOL, ROTFLMAO)—I use them, love them, but are they words? (The answer to this questions may depend on your age!) They are so common in conversation now I bet we'll find them in the dictionary before long (if they aren't there already).

Then there are those people who use words they don’t understand. We all know someone like that! Don’t forget the individuals who use words that only they know the meaning of. Try using dacrygelosis in a sentence. You just can’t do it, not unless you want to clear a room—actually that might come in handy… [There is an online resource for everything and I found one on obscure words:]. For those of you who are wondering, dacrygelosis is a noun meaning: condition of alternating laughing and crying (I kind of like it).

And where did all these words come from? Why do we have different meanings for the same word? Who decided to spell it that way? Why do we have three words to describe the same thing! Perhaps this is my favourite thing about words—etymology!!!

I looked up the word romance at Interestingly enough, the Online Etymology Dictionary says: c.1300, "story of a hero's adventures." It goes on to say that it wasn’t used to refer to a “love story” until the 1660s (to help you put that in perspective, Shakespeare died in 1616). For all of you IT buffs (or those of you who’ve been to the movies lately) I thought it would be interesting to look up avatar. You think it is a modern word created for gamers? Think again. Actually, it dates back to 1784 and refers to “descent of a Hindu deity.” What about the word word? Surely that is an old word. No, actually words predate `word`, which according the dictionary originated around 1462.

So bloggers and blog readers (fyi: blog is short for weblog and was first used in 1998), what is your favourite word?

[I’ll tell you that my least favourite word at the moment is Toshiba since I can’t turn off the French keyboard on my laptop…]


Janet said...

I came down with a severe case of dacrygelosis reading your blog this morning, Anne! Laughter over the state of 'words' in our society today - Lady Gaga's example, then tears over the state of 'words' in our society today, laughter again at your really big sentence peppered with 'really', back to tears...well, you get my meaning.

Or do you? Your post emphasizes that everyone comes to reading with a different background, different perspective. As a writer, we need to be aware of that. And we need to utilize our common sense when it comes to our word choice. In historical, an accurate word for an object would add authenticity to our manuscript, but if our reader can't figure out what that word means, even in context, we have the potential to lose that reader (I know I often am thrown from a story by a word I don't know, a meaning I can't decifer - it nags at me until I go look it up, thus I've left the story).

I, too, love words - as you can see, I like to use a lot of words - so your post was perfect. Thank you. And I love the information on the word 'romance' - most excellent. Well done, Anne :)

DebH said...

i've always been fascinated with words - probably because of my love of reading. i have been known to mis-use a word or two because i didn't look up the meaning but had heard it before and thought i knew what it meant by how the other person used it in conversation (whoops...)
i appreciate the links. a couple more places for me to get lost in *heh*. i also like figuring out the origin of common phrases people use (ie. costing an arm and a leg). i suppose that is part of my word fascination too.

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Janet! Yes, I have been yanked out of a scene by a word that doesn't fit either because it was used incorrectly or I don't know the meaning (or an abbreviation I am unfamiliar with). While it is important to make our writing interesting I agree that it is also important that we don't lose our readers.

Karyn Good said...

I think my new favorite word is dacrygelosis! (Now all I have to do is figure out how to pronounce it.) I love learning new words and when revising I love finding just the right word. My favorite and most frequently used book is The Synonym Finder.

I enjoyed the history on the word romance and it made me realize I don't often stop and think about the origins of a word. Have I found a new interest?

BTW - I'm a terrible texter. I was told the other day by my teenage son not to bother with abbreviations. He said it was probably better if I spelled out the word. It might make sense that way. I said, "Seriously?"

Anne Germaine said...

Deb, I have definitely misused words before. It can be embarrassing but sometimes how you learn. Sometimes I say a word and then as soon as I hear myself say it I wonder why it popped out because it doesn't fit at all!

Anne Germaine said...

LOL Karyn! Now I've done it--I've lured you to the dark side. It is my love of history that is fuels my interest in etymology. It is kind of cool learning where a word comes from.

I could easily get hung up when writing historicals though--what do you do when the word you want to use hasn't been invented in the period you are writing? (Good thing I mostly write moderns!)

Heather said...

my favourite word would be 'impecunious' to be poor or pverty stricken, have also read a definition where it means to be without money. As in the Royal family don't carry money with them but they have wealth.

Some how my son came across this word in grade 5 and loved it. From that point he understood the power of words and would use them to confound his classmates. He would say things to them and they wouldn't know whether he cursed them or complimented them so they would kinda nod their heads and walk away.

Anne Germaine said...

Sounds like you have a smart kid Heather. Words over fists!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anne,
At the moment my favorite word is "royalties". That and "income tax refund." Okay, more than one word. Guess what's on my mind lately?

Finding the right word is very satisfying. Something just clicks when you find it. But as you already said, not a good idea to do your word hunting while writing a first draft. It'll slow you down and take you out of the story. Save all your hunting for the fun editing stage.


Suse said...

Hi Anne,
I love words. I find them fascinating. is one of my best friends.

I have no favourite words, but there are a couple I dislike: 1. stupid (as an educator, I cringe when students refer to themselves as this.) 2. hate (I just hate the word hate - oops, I used the same word more than once in a sentence.)

Thank you for the links. I should expand beyond & wikipedia.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Love this post, Anne. I enjoy using the right words. My revisions are taking longer than they should because I need to use the perfect word for the situation. Each word must be read, said, and rolled around the mouth to catch every last nuance. Is it descriptive enough? Active enough? Lyrical enough? *sigh

My 11 yr old's fav word is 'random'. I love the word, too but not in every sentence!

I read a book this past summer while testing the eReader - sorry I can't remember the title - but it was a Mills & Boon and the setting was in the British Isles. I needed to keep a dictionary by my side the whole time. And it wasn't because of 'local' words - she just used a lot of $2 words (if you remember my post about 5cent or $2 words.)

I can't pick a favorite. They're all wonderful.

Well, except for the obscene ones, of course.

Anne Germaine said...

Jana - I'm pretty sure I would like the word royalties too!

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Suze! Yes, I hear you. Where would we be without Dictionary/ and Wikipedia.

My favourite word would have to be Google. It is fun to say. Kind of fun to write. And I absolutely couldn't live with out it! I wouldn't want to count how many sentences I start or end with with: 'So I googled it..."

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Anita! Obscene words no, not when I have to listen to children say them anyway. I do think it is interesting to note what words people use when they do swear. Sometimes I does that word even fit? How do some words became obcsene?

Anne Germaine said...

If Hayley was around, she might reference her blog posting on creating 'curse' words in other dimensions. I really liked it: