In any event, today's quote has been rolling through my mind lately, though it's a recurring inner thought and has been for years:
The difference between the perfect word and the almost-perfect word is like the difference between fire and the firefly.
This quote speaks volumes to me; I try to pick my words carefully (though I fail a fair amount of the time), and I'm usually conscious about the nuances that words convey and the connotations that they carry. The result of trying to be careful about the words you choose, however, is that you may often come across to those who don't know you as pretentious and / or arrogant. And not for nothing, but you might come off just the same to folks who know you too!
I can't tell you how many times I've been reprimanded to 'speak English'. My usual retort: this *IS* English...you should learn it.
But really, words do have specific meanings and I feel that we should try to use the right one at the right time. It is enormously difficult to get a specific idea in my mind faithfully duplicated in someone else's mind; using the wrong words just won't do.
I've gotten flack for using the word 'aroma'...apparently the listener found it pretentious, and they suggested that I should just use the word 'smell'. No matter that the words are different, eh? 'Smell' can mean any number of things from a horrid stomach-lurching stink to a pleasant...well...aroma. 'Aroma' narrows the definition significantly and puts one in a pleasant state of mind. We don't typically talk about the aroma from the trash.
Were I to describe something as a smell, the listener would not necessarily know if I was trying to describe a pleasant smell or an unpleasant smell. The rebuttal came that I could use 'good smell', or note that 'it smelled nice'.
Because that's easier than using the word 'aroma'??? Why not just use the right word?
I recall talking to a fellow once who was saying that someone had described something to him as 'nebulous'. Not knowing that word, he asked what it meant, and the speaker, she told him that it was like 'mysterious'. SO, questions he, why not simply use the word 'mysterious'?
Fair question, the answer to which is that they are not synonymous. That speaker fell into a bit of a trap and disseminated a wee bit of ignorance. When asked for a definition, she went searching for a synonym, and landed on a word that is 'like' nebulous (or at least the sense that she had been using at that time), but it's not quite 'nebulous'. And he, my friend, walked away with the understanding that these two words are the same, and how pretentious it must be to use 'nebulous' instead of 'mysterious'.
Here's one of my favorite character descriptions:
At bottom M. Bonacieux's character was one of profound selfishness mixed with sordid avarice and seasoned with extreme cowardice.
When I read this, I felt that I truly knew what Dumas was trying to convey to me across the one-hundred-sixty-some odd years since it was penned. I thought it was great. Others have told me that it's too wordy; why not simply call him a coward and be done with it?
Well, because it's not the same, by gum! If you simply call him a coward, what does that mean, exactly? Do you get his utter depravity? His complete lack of care of how others get along? No. You might get nothing more than a fellow who does not like to fight.
And I rather like the culinary allusions too, as I can readily appreciate the difference between something that's 'mixed' into a larger whole, and how a 'seasoning' has a different impact entirely. Dumas' description of Bonacieux made my lip curl in derision to that character, and implanted in me (in a very quick and efficient passage) a deep-seeded dislike for the fellow.
Were he to simply be called a 'coward', I would not have been so emotionally invested in how he played his part in the story.
And now, in an unprecedented move, a third quote that always comes to mind when I rant to myself on this topic:
Your writing should take full advantage of the language's manifold wealth, but, at the same time, avoid pretentious pedantry.
~Writers.com Newsletter Vol. 3, No.1 January 2000
A fine line to walk, that. But I take this to heart, especially when writing my own fiction. I use the word that I think conveys my meaning, and if the reader doesn't know that word, well, perhaps they'll look it up and learn a little bit more English (or American) :)
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject; it is too often loud in my ears, and I often feel that I'm the only one who cares! Anyone else out there care?