The Power Of Certain Words


Ever hear someone use a word that sounded so out of character, their entire persona changed right before your eyes? For example, what if a priest were sitting beside you in a deli, and you overheard him say, “Jesus, look at these prices!” Maybe he is sincerely invoking God’s name in the hopes of seeing a miracle of new pricing right before his eyes – but – probably not.

As a writer, of course, I notice words a lot. Recently, I was reading CHILD OF GOD, by Cormac McCarthy. You don’t need me to tell you the man can write. If you like that style. And by that I mean, he’s been compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, and not sure who else, but, just to be compared to those two heavy weights – need I say more?

While reading CHILD OF GOD, I noticed McCarthy’s choice of words in a way I’ve never noticed before while reading any book. I think it might have been because they’re no longer in “circulation,” so they really stuck out.  They seemed old fashioned, obscure, seldom used by everyday writers, but for this story they were perfect. I really enjoyed how he would write a sentence describing a person’s actions, or the setting and how I didn’t need to look up any of them to “get” what he meant. Slagheap, wimpling, slaver, palimpsest, intaglio and cannalured, are a few (and only a few), just to give you an idea. It was the use of these unusual words that made him read like Faulkner, or Hemingway, as well as his sentence structure.

Much like the example of the priest above, there is another, really common word that can change your image of someone, the instant they use it. Precious. Think about it. Who would you expect to say, “Oh, now that’s just precious.” Would you expect it to be a guy? A man’s man, so to speak? It is, again, just in my own opinion, a word reserved more for women, you know, little old ladies. I don’t use it – never have. It’s like my brain automatically veers away and I honestly don’t think it’s a word that has EVER come to my mind to use in a sentence. Gah. This one should have gone in that WORDS I HATE post from way back when, but this post is more about how using words can change your perception of someone or something. And that one would certainly do it, if say, some guy, oh, I don’t know, like Tony Soprano? said, “That’s precious!”

The easy ones to see a change in perception are curse words. (Or cuss words, as we say here.)  I never, ever used to cuss. Then things happened, and a little “shit!” or “oh hell,” slipped out. Then, other things happened and the notorious “f” bomb was dropped. And now I’m writing a book with a lot of “f” bombs in it. And I can’t seem to stop thinking, or saying it. “Fuck, I spilled some milk.” Or, “Fuck, is that the mailman already?” The other day, a neighbor dropped by while we were sitting on the patio, and we got into a really good discussion. I let an f bomb or two drop – and this person, who has never heard me say it, busted out laughing and loosened up, like “hey, I can be for real.” It was kind of funny. How they were all polite and stiff until I regaled them with an “F” bomb or two.   I mean, I’m not uptight, or snooty as it is, but I don’t want them to think I’m crude either. Maybe I’m too late on that.

What word choice has changed your perception of someone, or a situation?

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15 Comments

Hee. I fudged the linguistics, but that’s the general gist. To be fair, translating the spelling of Old High Sprachen into contemporary language is a fantasist’s job anyway.

Thank you so much for not finding me a completely high-handed twit. Or, at least, for not saying so publicly … 🙂 I see you on Janet Reid’s blog often and only started following here a month or so ago, so I know I’m an upstart …

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I say fuck all the time, makes people laugh because of my age. Fornication Under the Consent of the King, just another word relating to the overreach of our leaders. Maybe that’s why we don’t have a king anymore.

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    HA! Thanks for that reminder…. I long ago forgot it was an actual acronym. No kidding about overreach…and…you know, I’ve seen your picture and NO, that word and you just don’t marry up.

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      Actually, acronym etymologies are only very very rarely true. This one is not the rare breed. It’s just derived from the germanic *fokken*, to beat against.

      My apologies for being an obnoxious pedant, but – etymology nerd + discussion about words = Diane being a wretched upstart …

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      It’s fascinating where words originate from, right? Although the unfortunate tidbit of your wisdom makes me think of Ben Stiller in Meet The Parents – and his last name. Fokker. 🙂

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It’s small and maybe stupid, but I had a friend who used “Eek” when excited. Did not fit her personality at all, so it kind of grated on me more than anything.

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    That’s what I’m talking about exactly. I will use “eeek!” in an email, but I won’t say it. It would sound…IDK, Kind of off putting out loud.

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Years ago, while visiting your country, I used the word “lovely” to describe something. The woman I was with thought it hilarious — she seemed to think it a strange word, and somewhat effeminate. I still use it. Thing is, all the words are on the table, and it doesn’t matter what people think. Words are lovely — is it precious of me to say so?

Last week I attended a writing group meeting, as a guest, and the friend I went with (a member of the group) asked me to read out the beginning of a novel I’m working on. I suggested it may not be to everyone’s taste, as not everyone in attendance may like the amount of curse/cuss/swear words in it. Well, one man in attendance, allegedly a writer, asked “Why would you have swear words in your writing?”
I explained that it’s told in first person, and the character telling the story swears. This alleged writer then proceeded to tell us all that good writing doesn’t have that sort of language in it, and when asked for an example of good writing, had to go back to Anna Karenina to cite some. And also that he refuses to read anything with swear words in it.
My opinion of this alleged writer was quickly formed. In my opinion, it’s unlikely he’ll ever write anything really good, because his mind is closed to most of the great writing that exists, and he refuses to use some of the very best words that are available to us, and if he’s closed to them, he’s obviously closed to many other things too, and these limits on his mind are not conducive to the sort of connecting of the dots that all very good writers’ minds have in common.
I also now wish I’d read out the chapter — partly because it’s probably better than anything he’s ever written, but mostly because it would have been fun to watch him as I did so.

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    LOL. You’re crazy. (in a good way, of course)

    I’d agree w/you on the writer who said that about the swear words. He is definitely limiting his reading world. Sounds a bit snooty, too, if you ask me. 🙂

    Reading this reminded me of what Cormac McCarthy said about his writing choices in regards to using quotations and exclamation points. He doesn’t. Says he doesn’t need them. And…he doesn’t.

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    I know an alleged writer (a phrase I hope you won’t mind if I borrow …) of this stripe, a woman. On the sole occasion I’ve ever read her creative output, the story involved a fairly wild club girl evading a molestation in the dark city streets. Um.

    Every word there was a surprise.

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Faulkner and Hemingway are two very different writers. When people say McCarthy is similar to them, it makes me want to read some of his fiction.

Hearing my dear mother use the word “shit” casually was an eye opener.

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    You should…but, I’ll say this about his writing too and I can only cite two examples because they are the only two I’ve read – THE ROAD and CHILD OF GOD – are very different in stylistic choice. But, having said that, now I want to read ALL of his work.

    Much like my mother using the f bomb. I know that would raise my eyebrows. (she never has…and never will, but boy if she did.)

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    McCarthy is so unique, it’s hard to see him compared to anyone. The hardest book I’ve ever read, for both content and language, is Blood Meridian — which I believe ranks up there with Moby-Dick for the best American novel ever written. And he’s so incredibly talented it’s hard to believe the same person wrote The Road, and No Country for Old Men (one of my top 10), and the All The Pretty Horses trilogy. They are all so different.

    It’s said that Blood Meridian, while fiction, is based on his extensive research of how the American West was really won. It’s no cowboys and Indians story, that’s for sure. What a bloody, horrific place it was.

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      I heard the same about Blood Meridian. And I agree about his uniqueness. He really stands alone in a lot of ways.

      I do want to read more of his work. I think I tried SUTTREE once…just browsing through it and I could not get into it… I might try again.

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