Mitchell: Ideally, Words Should Be Precise, Not Confusing

Mitchell

Imagine a timber crew idling around their pickups in the moist, early-morning silence of a pine forest, waiting for their workday to begin. A tardy member of the crew pulls up, kills his engine, opens his door and steps out, his laced-up boot sliding just a bit on the scarred ground. He ambles around to the bed, lowers the gate and slides out a shiny new 40-inch Stihl. Without a word and in an instant, his mates notice, then gather around in hushed awe and admiration. His shoulders seem broader, head higher.

Pulpwooders make their living with chainsaws, and Stihl is the go-to brand.

Writers make ours with words. We relish finding the ideal word the same was pulpwooders revere the Cadillac of saws.

Feckless, for example. That’s a word worthy of respect.

Typing f-e-c-k-l-e-s-s warms our hearts.

We don’t get to use it often and deploy it sparingly.

Same for kerfuffle.

Another Mississippi writer and I rationed ourselves. We each deploy kerfuffle a maximum of once per year.

Vitriol is in the neighborhood with kerfuffle. Perfect, but must be used sparingly.

The internet says there are 171,476 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, not including derivatives. The internet also says most of us recognize 20,000 to 35,000 of them when we hear them, but use far fewer on a regular basis.

That’s OK. While some posit that increased use of emojis means we’re returning to hieroglyphics, it must also be recognized that highly effective communications have always taken place with grunts, nods and inflections. That’s something we have in common with cave people. In other words, people don’t need to deploy every word every day to make a point.

It’s different for those of us relics who write. We don’t have pictures or sounds in our arsenal. All we have is 26 characters and a space bar to arrange and rearrange — so it’s of necessity that we admire words the same way those guys gazed in awe at that 40-inch Stihl.

Melodic is a great word when used to describe the cadence of a particularly gifted speaker. Absconded is a great word to use in a bank robbery or public corruption story.

Be clear: Respecting words for their precision is not the same as injecting words to sound smart or important. “Gelid,” for example, means “cold.” But a journalist’s job is to communicate, not confuse, so it is doltish, at best, to use words very few people know just to sound smart. (Test this: Next time you are in a group, tell them, “It’s supposed to be gelid tomorrow,” and see how many people respect you for it.)

Bucolic and halcyon are good words, almost cousins. Bucolic references a relaxed and pleasant lifestyle well outside the limits of a metropolis. Halcyon references an idyllic state of peace and calm (and when spelled Halcion is the name of a euphoria-inducing prescription pill that has been on and off the market).

Educators have regained some self-control, but there was a time when that profession, as a class, was known to use 50-cent words to relay 5-cent meanings. They would use “adjudicative process” when “judge” would do. The school would announce a “panel of adjudicators” would “catechize” science fair entries instead of just saying entries would be judged.

Spite is a good word. Similar to feckless, it’s tight, hard, specific. It summarizes vengeful behavior perfectly. “He did it for spite” is much more efficient than, “He did it because he felt offended by something they had done and he wanted to get back at them.” Why use so many words when one will do?

A persistent rumor about journalism is that we are taught to “dumb down” our copy. That’s so wrong, or at least so misunderstood. We are taught to use the least amount of words needed to be accurate. Being precise in word choice doesn’t mean oversimplify because if we oversimplify, we become less accurate. And, besides, just because a word isn’t used in everyday speech doesn’t mean readers don’t know what it means.

Another good word is disinterested (which I hope you haven’t become).

There are so many good words that sum things up so well: Hedonistic, acerbic, bountiful, milieu. Martinet. Slovenly. Alluring. Sift. Traverse. The list is almost endless.

Oh, and for the record, the use of kerfuffle earlier was as an example only. It doesn’t count toward the once-per-year allotment. I reserve the right to use in context at some point, perhaps once the Legislature convenes.


Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2014Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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