Rambling speeches and bad writing litter our lives. If talk is cheap, it’s because the supply usually exceeds the demand. But the best words, the right words, fit snugly enough to keep out windy disquisitions.
We each treasure certain words, jingling them in our imaginations like rare coins. We store them up until we can find the best occasion to spend them in conversation or deposit them onto a page in the hope of gaining some interest.
Even people who are not known as lovers of language have favorite words that sparked joy in their childhoods or that simply feel good in their mouths. My uncle Phil, who probably never read a book in his life, labeled anything negative as “ambiguous” (“I have an ambiguous feeling about that horse running in today’s fifth at Belmont”) and anything positive as “laudable” (“Her eggplant was so laudable, I had two plates”).
I used one of my favorite words, “careen,” in a recent column, and the number of readers who commented on it surprised me. Fans of the word, they were happy to see it up and around again. I asked readers and friends for their favorites. Responses poured in.
Lisa D. Saunders said that when she was very young, “I loved the word ‘thicket’ so much that I would whisper it quietly to myself. I’ve moved on, but nothing has replaced it in my affections.” Krysia Nelson loves the word “caper” and wanted to make sure I understood that she meant “as in adventure, not as in the edible garnish.”
Joan Muller’s word was “flense,” which, she said, “spellcheck had mocked most cruelly.” I had to look it up. And today, therefore, I learned there is a term for the slicing of the skin or fat from a carcass, especially that of a whale. I kept reading and learned to my chagrin (another favorite of mine) that if I’d read my Herman Melville or my Cormac McCarthy with more care, I would have already been familiar with flensing.
So, basically, I flense my first drafts (they are very like a whale). I’ll use all the words that come to mind and some that arrive at the keyboard apparently having bypassed my mind altogether, reaching my fingertips via the ether (ahhhh, the lovely “ether”).
I save all iterations, however, just in case. I’m a draft-hoarder, collecting junk I write and piling it up in heaps inside files innocuously labeled “Outtakes.” It’s the same impulse that makes people put rusted cars up on cinder blocks. I’ll admit that it’s a small flaw (flaw — strong, short word, good mouth sound; overused when referring to fictitious characters but not used often enough when referring to actual human beings) or a foible (fun to say). Either way, it’s not a habit I’m wont (a little archaic, but nevertheless handy) to change.
Some words are like pizza toppings in that they can be way overdone, but in the right measure, they’re delicious. These include “calamity,” “finagle,” “ineffable,” “grimy,” “flout,” “elixir,” “swig,” and “gaudy."
As a writer, I roll around in words the way cats roll around in catnip. The effect is the same: delirious with pleasure, I abandon myself. I toss them around, self-indulgently making a mess I know will have to be cleaned up later. Sometimes, though, fortuitously (“graceful, always with a happy ending”), they slip into place.
Pick your favorites, but hunt for more. You’re as good as your word.