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Marginal Notes

What's the Good Word?

“Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Whether it’s Dickens struggling to find the perfect character name or Rachel Maddow working to introduce the word “kerfuffle” into our political discourse, a love of words tends to inspire and delight the people who make a living with them. They flow trippingly from the tongue. You can crunch them between your teeth. They reveal odd corners of our linguistic history. They’re just fun.

So how do you use your love of words in telling your story?

I’ve written before about the dangers of letting your language get in the way of your characters. When the original, beautiful, flowing language comes from you rather than them, you run the risk that your readers are going to notice the writer behind the curtain. You don’t want your language to drag them out of the immersion in your world that is the main reason for reading. Besides, writing your narrative in your characters’ voices rather than your own is just too powerful a character-creation tool to ignore. So don’t exercise your love of words unless your characters have a love of words.

Note: this doesn’t mean all your characters have to be sophisticated and erudite, with obscure and glowing vocabularies. I’ve often come across a fresh and surprising use of words from people who didn’t necessarily have a formal education. Like the man here in Ashfield who once told me, “Well, I was married for eight years, with another one for six years, been with the one I’m with now for ten years, and that’s half my life chewed up.” I still treasure that particular use of language.

Words can build worlds as well as characters. I don’t think anywhere but England could have produced “whinge,” which is either a whiny cringe or a cringing whine, depending on whom you ask. England also gave us “coddiwomple:” to travel purposely without a clear destination in mind. I’ve read that all of Greek philosophy rests on the Greek linguistic trick of turning an adjective into a noun by adding a definite article – i.e. “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” And recently a guest on a late-night talk show mentioned her favorite, archtypically German word – backpfeiffengesicht, literally “cheek-slap face.” It’s generally translated as “a face that cries out to be punched.”

The words that a culture churns out show what matters to them, what they pay attention to. So you can often create the sense of an entire world, just by indulging in an appropriate love of words.

Take a look at one of my favorite examples of this, from Mark Helprin’s magical realism story Winter’s Tale. In it, a nineteenth-century machinist, Peter Lake, finds himself in twentieth-century New York (long story) at a surviving power plant full of “machines that had outlived all others of their kind.” The mechanics caring for them don’t fully understand them. Peter does. When he catches them disassembling and trying to figure out the workings of a “double mutterer,” they invite him to help.

The mechanics were confused – until Peter Lake fixed his mad gaze on the machine, and began to work.

“Now look here,” he said, after removing a large panel. “You see this oscillating slotted bar that’s rubbing up too close to the powl and rachet of this here elliptic trammel? That, my friends distorts the impact load on the second hobbing, up there, which is applied to that helical gear. But the trouble is, it isn’t. Without that little helical gear, the antiparallel linkage on the friction drive won’t disengage, and this wormwheeled pantograph can’t come into play. Clear so far?” They nodded.

“And it’s not only that, but you’ve got a jammed friction brake. See? It has to be lubricated with the finest spermaceti. And the two cams on the periflex coupling are on backward.

“If one of you fellas will mill me a buttress-threaded lug nut with a fifty-five degree flank angle, I’ll put the oscillating slotted bar back where it’s supposed to be. Meanwhile, we’ll rearrange the cams and unfreeze the friction brake. Well? What are you waiting for?”

In less than half an hour, the double mutterer was muttering like crazy, and the power train had begun to run as smoothly and quietly as an owl’s swoop.

A lot of this sounds like the artful creation of the writer, as made up as Dickensian names. But – surprisingly – periflex couplings, friction brakes, helical gears, buttress-threaded lug nuts, and elliptical trammels actually exist, even if you might not be able to assemble them into a double mutterer. But note how the precision of the language creates an atmosphere of loving attention to detail and feeds a need for clarity and concision – I can’t imagine how the complex relationship between the helical gear and the wormwheeled pantograph could have been explained more briefly. The words capture fine distinctions that show what your characters – and the world they come from — value most.

This is true beyond mechanics’ jargon. Some of my favorite words represent fine shades of meaning that reveal a loving attention to the world – like “acnestis,” which means “the place on your back you cannot reach to scratch.” If your character cares about the distinction between “imply” and “infer,” (Nero Wolfe once burned a dictionary because it blurred the distinction) they also care about how ideas are expressed and relate to one another. On the other hand, you can effectively show a pedantry and fussiness by having your characters obsess about fine distinctions that rarely matter in real life – I’ve about given up on “lay/lie.”

Exercising a love of language is one of the things that makes writing a joy. As long as you’re exercising it in the service of your story, have at it. And that’s my final word.

No, actually, my final word is “mugwump.”