Words: handle with care

My book club this month is reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, and one particular section fascinated me. His character, Cal, says, “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words … I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster’. Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy’.”

It struck me that this is what we are mainly trying to do in fiction – we are expressing in words those complicated hybrid emotions that single words won’t cover. But each word goes to make up the intricacy, the shading, of those complexities.

So I’ve been having a to and fro with a writer for whom I’m doing some editing and, with her permission, using our most recent debate to illustrate why word choice is so vital.

Her protagonist was sitting in a beach-front café, waiting to meet somebody, and looking at a ‘jade-coloured sea’. Now, to begin with, while jade is usually (and simplistically) translated as ‘bright light green’, jade itself is as various as the sea, and an awful lot of the most prized Chinese jade is white. Second, I’ve spent most of my life looking at the Channel or the Mediterranean every day, and green seas are pretty rare. They do happen, but not often, and extremely rarely in the morning, which is when her character was in the café.

It’s not a big deal, but it niggled. Because she’s a writer whose language is stark, she’s not much given to loose description. The idea that she had a clear idea in her mind, but that it wasn’t reaching my mind, troubled me.

We unpicked it. She wanted the colour of the sea to be foreshadowing the later activity; something unexpected happens and then her protag works out that he could, and should, have seen it coming. So ‘jade’ for her had a specific connotation – it was on the cusp of a blue ocean and a green one, and she wanted that cusp point to indicate a tipping in the action. Fair enough. So she’d used a word that had quite a specific sense for her, but had very different connotations for me. We ended up with a longer description in which the sea moves between blue and green, threatening to move away from its dense colour into the uncertainty of fair weather or foul. And that left us both quite happy.

But in a world where Eugenides’ portmanteau words don’t exist, we knock our own words together into rows that are like shelves, supporting the emotions we wish to convey and it’s easy – when we get carried away by our narrative – to grab the nearest word without seeing how well it fits the row, or even if, when we turn it round, it looks like a completely different thing to somebody else.

I am indebted to ellenm1 at Flickr for the photograph of the (non-green!) jade carving illustraing the Gathering of Poets at the Lan T’ing Pavilion, created in 1784


  1. Jim Murdoch
    20th September 2009

    That can work both ways and we’ll drive ourselves daft if we try and cover all possible bases. My books are full of allusions and cultural references and I know for a fact that the majority of them will pass people by so why do I bother? Because I have no idea which ones will connect with my reader. Then again a recent reviewer picked on a nod to Frankie Howard in Stranger than Fiction. Now he’s pointed it out I can see it but it wasn’t deliberate. And how many more like that will have got through on a subconscious level? I see your point with the jade. For the record I wouldn’t have batted an eye reading it but then I never pay too much attention to descriptions in anyone’s novel.

  2. pinkyandnobrain
    21st September 2009

    I love your choice of words “… the intricacy, the shading, of those complexities”, as it seems so apt. I feel that writing is about creating a web of meaning and shading, bit by bit, the finer details, getting closer and closer to where you want to take the reader. This reminded me of some stuff I was reading last year about the risks involved in writing. There is no guarantee that your audience will pick up what you write in the way you intended, especially when trying to communicate things that it is not possible to contain in a single word. As you say, as a writer you have to be working towards creating a coherent picture – the details and how they fit together are monumentally important and it is indeed, not a task to be taken lightly.

    But then also, the flip side is that a language that had a word for every thing we needed to communicate would be dead and, in the end, meaningless I think. It is the need for novelty through new combinations of words that makes writing so rewarding, and in fact that creates meaning by actually engaging the reader in the creative process. The very fact that the reader has to interpret what you say, away from the original context of its writing, provides a certain (valuable) kind of freedom.

  3. Kay Sexton
    24th September 2009

    Dear Jim – but your work is like a mantelpiece filled with fascinating things for the reader to pick up or not at they choose, while hers is like a polished dining room table with only a couple of items carefully placed on it – so such word use really stands out with her fiction.

    Pinkyand – I think what you say is true, writing has to be about risk or its not worth doing: but it should be calculated risk. Every so often I catch a writer who’s written something they think is innocent but that can be read as a double-entendre and where they haven’t realised what they’ve done, they are utterly shocked by the way they could have misled their readers.

  4. Jim Murdoch
    24th September 2009

    Well see when your picking things up and putting them down do you think you could give it a quick wipe down with a damp rag while you’re at it?


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