The Almost-Right Word

The Word for the Day is...

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Mark Twain

It’s all about the words, isn't it? We writers and bloggers, and anyone having a conversation about anything, via any medium: we string words together to share an idea or an experience. We might relay facts, seek information, or maybe we just make someone else giggle.

I think the truest window into our soul is not the eyes, but our words. What we say and how we say it is the most pure expression of who we are and what is important to us. The Oxford Dictionary people tell us that we have over a quarter of a million words in the English language. Add to that impressive number the fact that most Americans also know at least of a smattering of words in other languages.


Today is Sinterklaas Day in the Netherlands. I know that because most of my family comes from Holland. That means that my words include rich, powerful, emotional words from that heritage. It means that I can sing “Sinterklaas Kapuntje” (if you can call what I do singing!) and I make some mean kaasbolletjes. Yeah, I could tell you that I make mean cheese balls, but those are not the right words to convey the idea. It requires the Dutch words to tell you about buttery, savory, tender little pastries, rich with the flavor of perfectly aged Gouda. See what I mean? Cheese Balls? Bah. Doesn't even begin to cover it.



There are family words: those words that are part of our family’s private language. There are families that enjoy ba-skeddi and meatballs every week. Long after the children can pronounce “spaghetti”, the family word is still used. I think all families must do this.

There are words that hold nuance and shades upon shades of meaning, to capture the human experience. I read somewhere that the indigenous people of the Arctic have dozens of names for the types of snow. If you lived above the Arctic Circle, I would think “snow” wouldn't begin to describe your life’s experience.

You could tell me that you don’t like your teenager son’s choice of music. OK. I get that. If you tell me that the artist he listens to sounds like the voice of the devil himself, which he plays so loud that it makes you want to slam your head in the oven door, I get a much better picture of what you don’t like. Tell me that the lady across the street is religious and I get one idea. Tell me she is churchy and I get a completely different impression, even though the word seems, on the surface, to convey something so similar.The first time you hold your newborn baby in your arms, does the word “happy” do that experience any justice? Ecstatic? Yes! Overjoyed? Yes! Enamored, enraptured, captured, overwhelmed and blissful, yes! Happy? Just doesn't cut it.

Then you have the naughty words. Profanity. Oh, how I love well-placed profanity. I do! The key is to use it correctly. Misusing it will make you appear coarse, or careless or even stupid. Ah, but the right cuss word at just the right moment will underscore your point like no other word possibly could. You can not adequately express extreme provocation with a heartfelt, “Oh, Fudge.” You've let all the steam out of it. There is a reason why all languages have some profane words. We need them. They serve a valuable purpose in our expression of the human experience. And in the same way that using too much spice in your cooking will ruin the dish, using too much profanity will ruin what you are trying to say. A little goes a long way.

We have these many words because we need them. They are the layers of description that let us tell our human stories. This isn't to say that we should use the longest word we can think of (or google) for everything we want to say. It isn't about using the biggest word, or the most obscure, it’s about finding the right words. It’s about finding the words that place in your reader’s mind a clear picture of what you are telling them. It’s about making them feel the emotion, or see the setting, or even about making them smell the skunk. That is what takes it from an ordinary anecdote and turns it into a story. Without the nuance, it’s really just more of the same old shit.