I have always been a “word person.” Words and phrases catch me up and toss me around like a leaf whirling in an autumn breeze. And I am constantly attempting to grab just the right one. I remember asking my mother, “What’s another word for ____?” She would oblige by giving me several synonyms, and I would say, “Never mind, I’ve got it.” And thankless as teenagers often are, I would run out of the room hearing the irritation in her voice as she yelled, “Then why did you ask me?” She could never understand how the process worked: words jogging more words jogging even more words until just the right one flits past, as if daring me to catch it. (And why do we say “jogging our memory” I just had to look it up! It’s because one meaning of jogging is “to rouse or stimulate as if by nudging.”)
My husband fares no better with my persnickity need for just the right word. He is African-American and speaks another language that is picturesque and undoubtedly accurate to him, but often confusing to me. My first awareness of this came when I asked where a friend of his lived. He said, “He stays in Flint.”
I said, ‘No, I mean where does he live, not where is he staying.” We went back and forth a few times before I figured out that “stays” (which to me means, visiting or temporarily being somewhere) means “lives” to him. So you can probably understand my horror when a black friend of his asked me while we were riding to a concert, “How are you doin’? and I blithely answered with no premeditation, “I be chillin” to the raucous amusement of everyone in the van, including my husband.
Two of the first books I bought as a teenager with my “blueberry picking” money (through the Book of the Month Club – how many teenagers did that? No wonder I didn’t have any dates) was Word Origins and their Romantic Stories and Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun. I still have them. Did you know that, according to Willard R. Espy, the word tuxedo originated in the late 19th century at Tuxedo Park in New York, a favorite resort of the beautiful people of the day. One of these “swells” became “irked with the awkward tails on his formal full-dress coat and had his tailor create the first tailless dinner coat.”
And did you know that radical comes directly from the Latin for root (as does radish), so a radical was originally a descriptive of someone who likes to get to the root of a matter. And how about the word platform – as in a political party’s statement of beliefs and vision? In French plat means “flat” so a platform is a flat-form. Party leaders’ endless arguments about “planks” in the platform take us right back to the broad pieces of sawed lumber that make up the speaker’s platform.
Word people are often struck by the beauty of a sentence or the perfect accuracy of a phrase. Yesterday I read an article in Books and Culture about Larry Woiwode’s “measured words.” I have never heard of Larry Woiwode, but I love his name! Anyway, the article quotes a sentence from one of Mr. Woiwode’s essays: “Once in the worst of a Wisconsin winter I shot a deer, my only deer, while my wife and daughter watched.” Then the author of the article parses the sentence:
A careful reading of that sentence shows his attention to language. There’s unobtrusive alliteration for one thing: In a 21-word sentence, I count six “w” words to say nothing of the echoing “one. The syllables ring; put together they’re rhythmically charged. Woiwode wanted his stories, he wrote elsewhere, ‘to be as compact and direct as poetry as if it walked the New Yorker columns in the blue jeans and work shirt of prose.’
You can sure I will read Woiwode’s new book of essays, Words Made Flesh.
So, perhaps you can understand how profoundly moved I was to read M. Robert Mulholland’s discussion on creation in Shaped by a Word. Elaborating on the concept of God speaking the created world into existence, Mulholland describes each of us as a Word of God, a living and breathing representation of his thought, given as a gift to the world. God spoke each of us into the time and space we inhabit. I’m thinking he was as particular about the Word that became me (and you) as the words I choose to write.