Choosing Words

The old wooden door slams behind me as I enter the bead store in the small town where I live. Visitors who frequent the quaint, antique-filled shops on Main Street can come in, pick up a miniature cupcake holder, choose beads, and then sit at tables to make a necklace. The array of beads is astounding: shiny, matte, and mottled ones; round or flat ones; tiny, middle and large sizes; of every hue and shade. My imagination races thinking of what dazzling concatenations might emerge from fashioning piles of beads into stunning pieces of jewelry.

The same emotions excite me when I sit down, choose words and write. The vast array of English words boggles my mind, especially when I realize that they are all created from only 26 letters. I search for interesting “shapes” and “colors” to thread through my message. I pray I’ll arrive at “paternoster” words—sequences of beautiful, appropriate ones. I know just the right ones are out there, if only I can find them in my brain, the thesaurus, or an online dictionary!

Mature writers and speakers of English master only an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 words, but the total number of English words, according to The Global Language Monitor, will surpasses a million in 2009. Because English draws on both Norman-French and Germanic roots and also includes thousands of borrowed words from other languages, it is extremely rich—enough to qualify as a world language. (How ironic that late 16th century English was considered a crude and inadequate language, used only by peasants.)

In The Miracle of Language, Richard Lederer shows the source languages of the numerous synonyms I can pick from in English (p. 20). From Anglo-Saxon, we get the word ask; from French, the word question, and from Latin/Greek, interrogate. Other such triplets include: end, finish, conclude; fast, firm, secure; holy, sacred, consecrated; and thin, spare, emaciated.

If I still fear I may not find just the right word or original turn of phrase, I consider what Lederer claims. “Incredible as it may seem at first thought, practically every sentence that you speak and write during your lifetime has never been spoken or written before in human history” (p. 14). With tomes of available word choices, no wonder it often takes time to find the winner.

Recognizing the incredible choice of words at my disposal, I imagine what kind of necklace the most beautiful string of words would resemble. It would not be a diamond one. Big, sparkling words that are rare and costly, ones that are unfamiliar to most readers, need to be kept for state occasions and academic publications. Readers might admire the beauty of the sentence, its cadence and alliteration, but would turn away disappointed, not able to afford the time and effort to “buy” it, to understand it.

Suites of words resembling a pearl necklace would prove more affordable, but would not be especially appreciated. With every pearl the same color and shape, the “necklace” would prove too boring, too predictable. Variety of words keeps the reader surprised and delighted.

For poets, a stunning pendant reflects the art of their craft—a short, compact jewel of a thought. Laid on a wide expanse of white, it stands out and draws appreciation for its uniqueness and impression.

What will please a reader most is multi-stranded strings of words picked from every color, shape, and texture. Some strands hang long, some short, and some in between. In such strings, some beads (aka words) should be repeated: articles, prepositions and helper verbs are like tiny, round gold beads, almost unnoticed, that separate the larger, significant ones from each other. And even some major beads repeat over and over—theme beads that help unify the look.

Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician (1623-1662), once noted, “Words differently arranged have different meanings, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.” I have found that words strung together carefully and wisely produce beautiful written pieces that please readers. And some even come up to me and say, “That’s beautiful. Where you get it?”