Tuesday, June 24, 2008
F.R. David may have the right of it… or not
If you’re an 80’s child chances are you know what I’m talking about. F.R. David had one of those pop hits (“Words”) one will either love or hate. I must admit I was a huge fan. This song’s opening line goes: “Words don’t come easy to me…” – it always gave me goose bumps when I listened to it (pathetic, I know; to my credit, I was in my early teens, although I still like it a little :-D). But anyway, this blog is not about romantic or soppy music; rather, it is about – what should be – a writer’s best friend: WORDS.
Since I first started writing a long time ago (I don’t mean novels, which for me is a more recent activity, but writing anything… such as college papers, magazine articles and poetry), my fascination with learning new words grew and I made it a habit to research word usage. In more recent times, I discovered an interest in etymology. Today, I perform this process more intensely as necessary for the project I’m currently working on. It is of particular interest for me to identify the provenance of certain words because I love to write historicals. I also like to experiment with different ways to say the same thing. The dictionary and thesaurus are my best friends. I even bought pocket versions to carry around with me when I’m out and about.
Being a professional editor in my “day job”, I occasionally come across an amazing manuscript (written by a client) which leaves me in awe of the author and fills me with a drive to enhance my own act. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a great experience. I remember a book I worked on last year. It was a novella of the high-brow literary genre. As I read through it, I found so many fresh and unfamiliar words I had to open a file and save them for future reference! Some of these words may mean something mundane but would not be readily supplied by a thesaurus. The great part of it all, however—and this surprised me most—was that nonetheless the novel flowed in a way that anyone could grasp its nuances, message and direction. The words added to, rather than detracted from, the overall effect of the story. They were not cumbersome or pompous. They simply showed the author’s ability to paint a complex picture with his characterization and plot. I can see this writer going a long way in the literary world.
One site I go to every now and then to flex my word knowledge muscles is Freerice.com. This is a great place to expand one’s vocabulary. Here you’ll be given a word and asked to guess its correct meaning from a list of 3 or 4 options. Each right answer gives you 10 grains of rice which go to a hungry child somewhere in the world. Therefore, the intent is to do something good while boosting language skills.
The words given are sometimes very difficult to guess. Knowledge of any Latin language helps because the root of the word gives heavy clues as to the word’s meaning – even if the word itself is alien to us. For example, the deduced meaning of the word “alate” would be “winged”, because one may be privy to the fact that in Italian – a Latin language – “ala” means “wing”. Similarly, “cicatrix” means “scar” (bringing to mind the Italian term “cicatrice”).
There may be instances where words do not derive from a language but from a character or term devised by an author. For example, the word “rodomontade”, meaning boasting or bragging, comes from the character of Rodomonte – a creation of the Italian Renaissance poet Matteo Maria Boiardi. A “dulcinea” is an alternate term for sweetheart, and finds its origin in the name of a fictional character to be found in “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. In times past, many authors have coined new words. One of these is a very well known one: Shakespeare. Many of the words invented by this great playwright (over 1700 of them!) are very much in use today. See if you recognize any of them: lonely, dwindle, fixture, madcap, torture, Olympian, and leapfrog. (Ever heard of “leapfrog technology”?).
Neologisms are also designed by the authors and scholars of today. The 20th century has seen the birth of many new words and phrases, such as pro-life, homophobia, genocide, meritocracy, soccer mom, quark, Internet, webinar, and wardrobe malfunction, among others. Why is it important to know this? Because as authors we must be aware of our power when it comes to introducing new ideas and modes of expression into the world—through our words. In essence, we must have fun with our craft and test our own boundaries. Playing with words is an entertaining activity. How tedious would it be if authors always stuck to the conventions of style and form to ignore that incredible thing called “artistic expression” or “artistic license”? Yes, there are rules to writing and publishing but ultimately, passion through creativity wins.
Let’s go back to the subject of word etymology. There are some words we think are very modern but are, in fact, not modern at all.
Take, for example, the word “e-mail”. One would probably think such a word is not older than a couple of decades. Wrong. According to MSN Encarta columnist Anu Garg: “the first use of the word is recorded from around the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)”.
Thus, Garg asks the obvious question: “What was e-mail doing at the time when there were no computers, telephones or even promises of large sums of Nigerian loot?”
And his answer is: “Well, the answer is that it was a different type of e-mail. That e-mail meant enamel, as in the glossy paint applied to metal, pottery, etc. In French, the word émailler still means "to enamel," not to send out a message using electronic mail. The word mail in electronic mail is of Germanic origin, meaning a bag.”
The study of words is to me an enthralling subject. As a child I loved to paint with water colors and acrylics but as I grew older, my passion shifted to painting with words. There's nothing else I'd rather do and as authors, I'm sure you agree with this. Alas, there is so much to learn and consider on this specific subject of words that if I had to go on I’d probably end up writing a dissertation. Knowing this, I must stop blabbering now before I risk boring you to an early death. :-D
So in conclusion, as the song “Words” goes, melody is F.R. David’s best friend because, he admits, he’s just “a music man”, not a writer. For us authors, things are the other way round. We make lyrical music (the stories we craft) with words. The beauty of it is that every author learns in different and very personal ways.
So if you’re an author I’d like to ask you: How do you set about learning new terms and ways of writing?
If you’re a reader, on the other hand, I must pose the question: How do words help you develop a connection with a book as you are reading it?
~ Angela ~
Sensual Romance with Flourish
Yahoo Group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/breathtakingromance/
"Mr. & Mrs. Foster"--coming Dec 2008 at WCPT
"Mile High to Heaven"--coming Mar 2009 at WCPT