Alfred North Whitehead maintained that “romance precedes precision.” If you’ve not yet fallen in love with words, let’s consider how to start the romance, a love affair that will, ideally, hone your verbal expression.
LOOK AT BIG WORDS
Top prize goes to “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” (Yes, a fifth-grader can learn to spell this. So can you–dwell on the many roots in the word.) Knowing the meaning of the word (“a lung disease” sometimes called ‘white lung disease,’ as opposed to the miners’ ‘black lung disease’) that afflicted teachers in the old days who inhaled too much chalk dust over the years.
DWELL ON LITTLE WORDS, TOO
Think about “id,” and “ilk,” and “din,” and “don,” and “dun.” Be inspired by Winston Churchill’s insistence that “big [wo]men use little words.” Collect your favorites and use them as appropriate.
THINK ABOUT PORTMANTEAUX
These are the words like “smog” that are created when we combine the beginning of one word–“smoke”–with the end of another word “fog” to get “smog.” Portmanteaux abound in our everyday conversations–words like “brunch” and “sitcom” and “infomercial.” Make up some of your own, such as “Chancy,” representing the duo of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
COLLECT YOUR FAVORITE FOREIGN WORDS
Think about their origins and how familiar you have become with words like these (which no longer seem foreign): “legerdemain,” “macho,” “esprit de corps,” “faux pas,” “bona fide,” “carte blanche,” “bon voyage,” “fiancee,” “fait accompli,” et cetera.
LOOK AT THE FAMILIAR IN AN UNFAMILIAR WAY
If you think the current president will soon have to pay the political piper, you might say, for example that “his uppance is coming.” Or try fashioning some of the “Show me” challenges. They include: “Show me what to put on a fat broken leg, and I’ll show you a broadcast.” Or, “Show me a Southern-made brassiere, and I’ll show you Dixie Cups.” For most of us, English is the only language we have mastered. We might as well plumb its intriguing depths.
APPRECIATE SIMILES AND METAPHORS; CREATE SOME OF YOUR OWN
The image these words create is an arresting one, to be sure: “as clumsy as Shaquille O’Neal holding a demitasse cup.” Or these: “as lonely as Adam before he found Eve,” and its partner, “as occupied as Adam after he found Eve.” Of course, there are the famous metaphors that appear in history books and those that reflect our culture: “The Iron Curtain,” “The Glass Ceiling,” “The Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove.”
You’ll no doubt agree this description captures our imagination more than its literal equivalent of someone who is unrealistic: “He is a peninsula, attached to the mainland of reality by a thin sandpit of practicality.” Granted, you will want to be simple and direct and concise in most of your writing. But, on occasion, if you throw in a compelling metaphor, you will be sure to give your audience something to think about. Remember that Jose Ortega e Gasset has called metaphors the most powerful force on earth. And business guru once said this about change, “If I were to give off-the-cuff advice to someone seeking to institute change, the first question I would ask is ‘How clear is your metaphor?'”
FOLLOW THE LEAD OF e e
Poet e e cumings was famous for eliding words to draw our attention to the new combination. Some of his creations include “puddlewonderful world,” and “blueeyed boy.” Sending a postcard from your Maine vacation could be boring: “Beautiful beaches. Wish you were here.” Or, the description of the beach as “oysteroccupied” and “gullspiraled” might ask the card recipient to press you for further details upon your return. These elisions, of course, have to be used selectively.
WHAT KIND OF HUMAN BEING ARE YOU?
Humorist Don Marquis, a wry observer of human nature, once divided the lot of us into two groups. There are those, he asserted, who could share the secrets of the universe with you and yet not manage to convey any sense of the wonder of the information. The second group, he pointed out, could tell you something as mundane as the fact that they had just been to the grocery store, where they bought paper napkins. The second tellers, though, could make you “thrill and vibrate with the intelligence” of the words.
Here’s to making your listeners and your readers thrill and vibrate.