Monday, October 15, 2012

Words Mean Something

I know, the title to this post seems like a total no brainer. But I don't think we think about it enough.

The other day one of my kids was pressing a button on a toy that played "row, row, row, your boat" over and over. It reminded me of a time when my uncle taught me the 'big words' version that goes something like this:

Propel, propel, propel, your craft
Placidly down the liquid solution
Ecstatically,  ecstatically, ecstatically, existence is but an illusion.

As I mulled over those words I realized that although the basic concept of the song is still in tact, the words have altered the meaning.

Go ahead and look up merrily in a thesaurus, ecstatically will be one of the alternate choices, but to me ecstatically means more of a feverish excitement. Merrily intones more contentment than excitement.


Not to mention the last phrase - 'life is but a dream' brings to mind a floating kind of peace, whereas "existence is but an illusion" brings to mind a deeper question and meaning to what life is. 

It made me think about the words I choose as I write. Yes, I could replace some of my words with others that sound 'smarter' but does that really convey how my character thinks and acts? Is it a word they would really use, and does it fit the tone of the book?

Words do matter, and we should be careful which choices to make for our book.

20 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

yeah, that last line really changes the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Fun post. To me that's one of the most intriguing facets of writing, finding that perfect word. Sometimes I dink and dink with a sentence until my heart knows I got it just right.

Sarah McCabe said...

One of my favorite quotes is from the tv show Babylon 5:

"Words have meaning and names have power."

I think your example of the song is interesting. First of all, "life" and "existence" are two completely different concepts. "Dreams" are very different things from "illusions". And of course there's very little in common between a "stream" and a "liquid solution".

I think this shows very clearly that you can't abandon small words for big words. Indeed, small words are not inferior to big words, as many a college professor would like us to think. Both need to be used, depending on their meaning, in writing because there are no two words that mean precisely the same thing.

David P. King said...

Hysterical! I've never heard that version before. I'll sing it to my kids tonight and delight in their raised-eyebrows reaction. :)

Rena said...

I love that. And yes, word choice is so important. I believe that some words are more correct in some situations than other words, and that is a fantastic example.

Annalisa Crawford said...

My thesaurus and I are inseparable during the editing process. I can change a word three or four times before I'm completely happy.

When I told a writer acquaintance that, she said 'That's what editors are for!'

Donna K. Weaver said...

I love your example. I love the thesaurus but I run across the merrily issue a lot.

Suzanne Furness said...

Words are important and can change the whole meaning and flow as you demonstrated so nicely! (I know, I know we shouldn't use nicely it's boring but it fitted so well here!)

VikLit said...

Great example of an interesting topic - I completely agree, word choice is so important. Especially in first person, it can be about what that character would choose to say.

prerna pickett said...

this reminds me of that episode of Friends when Joey decides to write a letter on behalf of monica and chandler to the adoption agency and uses the thesaurus to make himself sound smarter but the letter is a complete jumble of mess.

Julie Daines said...

Interesting! I like this idea and now I'm going to mull over other children's songs and see what I can come up with.

Georganna Hancock M.S. said...

Also called the "Mensa Version" without the "the" which breaks the meter. I find it exquisitely satisfying decades after I first read it! Yes words matter - and they carry different meanings for each reader.

Livia said...

Great post! Words really do matter once you think about it in great detail. I should be paying more attention to my writing... :)

Jeigh said...

I love it! I learned this the hard way in high school, where, in an attempt to jazz up my homework, I would use the thesaurus and pick the word that sounded the coolest to me. Yeah, they are synonymous, but that doesn't mean they're exactly the same. Sometimes, it can change the meaning, like you said. I got a lot of red ink on those papers, too.

JEFritz said...

Very true! "Existence is but an illusion" is such a downer. Synonyms don't always have the same connotation.

Jessie Humphries said...

I overuse the right click, synonym function on Word all the time! I usually don't find what I am looking for, but it helps in the brainstorming dept. :)

Louise Bates said...

Now I'm wondering how many other ways one could alter that song! That would make a fun school project (in a few years - I think kindergarten might be a tad too soon): how many different ways can you sing the same song?

Tasha Seegmiller said...

This is so true. I have to be careful to keep the voice of the characters different and have caught myself thinking about this on more than one occasion.

BTW you may want to swing by my blog :)

Julie Dao said...

Great example of how the thesaurus does not always help! Even though two words technically mean the same general thing, their nuances are different and should be used in different contexts. I loved this example!

Emily R. King said...

So very true. Thanks for sharing those quotes. They are excellent.