Monday, May 3, 2010

Choosing the Right Word - Kelly Harmon

Many thanks to Ginger for having me here at Dishin’ It Out.  

Sometimes, I’ll be typing along and halt, at a total loss for words.  The word is there, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t think of it...what do I do?

I usually reach down to the floor (that tells you the state of my desk, doesn’t it?) and grab my trusty Roget’s thesaurus.  It weighs about three-and-a-half pounds.

A personal aside: and then we’ll get back to Roget...  One year for Christmas, my Mom bought a “pocket” thesaurus for me and my siblings and stuffed one each into our stockings.  I was thrilled. (My siblings: not so much.)  I used it through middle school, high school and college.  I kept having to tape the cover back on.  I scoffed at other versions.

A few years ago my Husband of Awesome™ purchased for me, at great cost, an Official Roget’s Thesaurus (the one mentioned above) which was quite heavy and contained nearly 1300 pages. I didn’t want it. And I felt horrible because, after all, I had my trusty pocket thesaurus which had served me well for all these years. It remained, unused, for as long as possible, because I had it in my mind to return it. 

And then one day I needed a word which my trusty little tome couldn’t help me with. So I tried Roget...and, well...I looked for my trusty little tome while I wrote this essay, and couldn’t find that ought to tell you what happened.  I carry Roget, as heavy as he is, whenever I travel, because I can’t seem to do without.]

So...I reach for Roget, and I look up a word that my mind is telling me is close to the word I need...and I’m offered several choices.  Now what?

Well...if you’re writing in English, and I do, because that’s the language I natively speak, I’ll pick the word which doesn’t have a Latin root. More to the point, I’ll choose something with a Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) root.

The fact is, English is a mutt of other languages. It’s primarily Anglo-Saxon, but in 1,100 AD during the Norman Conquest, a large amount of French finagled it’s way into the vernacular. French was the official language of the English Court. Anglo-Saxon was relegated to the common folk.  During the Renaissance, thousands of Latin words entered into English. This is where synonyms come from, sometimes resulting in three (or more!) words which mean nearly the same thing:

kingly (Germanic)
royal (from French roi)
regal (from Latin rex, regis)

But, since English, at its roots, is a Germanic language, the words in English which resonate, which punch, which emphasize the situation you’re talking about are going to be Germanic. This is because (generally) words from our Germanic ancestors are shorter and more direct (some would say more harsh) than the Latin, whose words are longer, flowery, and often regarded as more elegant or educated.

For example:

Bodily (Germanic) vs. corporal (Latinate)
Brotherly (Germanic) vs. fraternal (Latinate)
Leave (Germanic) vs. egress/exit/depart  (Latinate)
Dog (Germanic) vs. canine  (Latinate)
Ask (Germanic) enquire  (Latinate)

So, given a choice, I would rather ask my brother and his dog to leave than enquire of my frater and his canine to egress.  It just sounds better, don’t you think?

And now for a bit of shameless self-promotion:

My novella Blood Soup is finally available via Kindle.  You can purchase it here.
(It’s gotten some great reviews on Amazon.)

I’ve put the first two chapters up on Scribd if you’d like to check it out.

My short story The Dragon’s Clause is also now available via Kindle...(and also has gotten some fantastic reviews).  It’s available here

You can read the first half here for free.  

Information about other versions (PDF, print, etc.) of these stories are available on my Web page.

And, you can find me on Twitter: @Kellyaharmon

Thanks again, Ginger, for having me.  This has been a lot of fun!


Kelly A/ Harmon said...

Hi Ginger!

Thanks again for having me here today!

Diane Scott Lewis said...

I love figuring out word origins, thumbing through a thesaurus, finding appropriate period slang, and so forth. Enjoyed the post, Kelly.

Cate Masters said...

Great post Kelly! I'm a stickler for getting words just right too. For the first draft, I just get the story down on the page and turn off the internal editor, and leave lookups till revision time. At least three or four rounds of 'em.
I subscribe to A Word a Day, which gives the origin and usage of the featured word. Very cool.

MC Halliday said...

I couldn't live without a thesaurus myself! Great post, Kelly!

Rhobin said...

I try to tell my students that words have power. Most don't believe me until I show them how much difference the right word makes. I never noticed this until I began writing. Good post.

Paul and Karen said...

I'm the one who acutally reads the front of the dictionary but only American Heritage because the rest are not up to snuff, in my not so humble opinions on dictionaries. And Roget's, you have the cool version of which I only dream. LOL! Great stuff, thanks. Karen

Lorrie said...

If I can't think of a word, I leave a ______? and come back to it later. Yes, then if I still can't think of a word, dear old Roget comes through for me.
Nice post Kelly.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Diane!

Me, too! And I love buying dictionaries printed on different continents and in different times.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Cate!

I should learn to put down a "close" word in the first draft and find the right word in subsequent drafts. It would probably save a lot of time...I spend way too much of it trying to be precise the first time around.

Ginger Simpson said...

I'm always using the Thesaurus on my word program as I type because I try not to use the same word twice within a paragraph...with a few even. It's probably the feature I use the most.

Look what a great topic you've created, Kelly. :)

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi MC!

Thanks! I'm glad you liked the post.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Rhobin

Those students are lucky to have you for a teacher! Most of us have to learn these things for ourselves.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Karen!

I read the front matter, too! A lot of that stuff is really interesting.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Lorrie

If I'm anxious to keep moving, I'll just put in any word, or maybe a bunch of XXXXXs. Either way, I'll highlight the text so I can come back to it later more easily.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Ginger!

I use the WP Thesaurus a lot, too. It's actually my first line of defense, since it auto-populates while I'm typing.

Cheryl said...

What an excellent post, Kelly. I really enjoyed learning more about the origin of words. I have my Roget's Thesaurus from high school--it's tattered and falling apart, but I use it.

I also use my Microsoft Word one.

Thanks for a great, informative article.


Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Cheryl!

Thank you for the kind words! Tell, me...would you consider trading in your tattered volume for a new one? It took me a lot of years to part with my beloved and tattered volume. :)

Maryann Miller said...

What a fun and interesting post. Haven't met a writer yet who didn't like to play with words.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Maryann!

Thanks for dropping by. I'm definitely "guilty as charged" when it comes to playing with words!

Do you prefer Roget or the thesaurus which comes with your software...or maybe something else? said...

i rarely can find the words to used, im sooo jealous of authors and ppl who can string together words and make sense <LOL i cant

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi BlackRoze!!

Nice to see you here! Don't be jealous...we use TOOLS like dictionaries and thesauruses --I had to look up that plural, BTW -- :)

Margaret West said...

Great blog, kelly.

Maggie Dove said...

Enjoyed the post, Kelly!

Kelly A/ Harmon said...

Thanks, Maggie! said...

LOL see i just try to go by how the word sounds, lol


Romance Reviews

The Romance Reviews

Manic Readers

Manic Readers

She Writes

Historical Fiction Books

Readers and Writers of Distinctive Fiction