Words: handle with care

My book club this month is reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, and one particular section fascinated me. His character, Cal, says, “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words … I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster’. Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy’.”

It struck me that this is what we are mainly trying to do in fiction – we are expressing in words those complicated hybrid emotions that single words won’t cover. But each word goes to make up the intricacy, the shading, of those complexities.

So I’ve been having a to and fro with a writer for whom I’m doing some editing and, with her permission, using our most recent debate to illustrate why word choice is so vital.

Her protagonist was sitting in a beach-front café, waiting to meet somebody, and looking at a ‘jade-coloured sea’. Now, to begin with, while jade is usually (and simplistically) translated as ‘bright light green’, jade itself is as various as the sea, and an awful lot of the most prized Chinese jade is white. Second, I’ve spent most of my life looking at the Channel or the Mediterranean every day, and green seas are pretty rare. They do happen, but not often, and extremely rarely in the morning, which is when her character was in the café.

It’s not a big deal, but it niggled. Because she’s a writer whose language is stark, she’s not much given to loose description. The idea that she had a clear idea in her mind, but that it wasn’t reaching my mind, troubled me.

We unpicked it. She wanted the colour of the sea to be foreshadowing the later activity; something unexpected happens and then her protag works out that he could, and should, have seen it coming. So ‘jade’ for her had a specific connotation – it was on the cusp of a blue ocean and a green one, and she wanted that cusp point to indicate a tipping in the action. Fair enough. So she’d used a word that had quite a specific sense for her, but had very different connotations for me. We ended up with a longer description in which the sea moves between blue and green, threatening to move away from its dense colour into the uncertainty of fair weather or foul. And that left us both quite happy.

But in a world where Eugenides’ portmanteau words don’t exist, we knock our own words together into rows that are like shelves, supporting the emotions we wish to convey and it’s easy – when we get carried away by our narrative – to grab the nearest word without seeing how well it fits the row, or even if, when we turn it round, it looks like a completely different thing to somebody else.

I am indebted to ellenm1 at Flickr for the photograph of the (non-green!) jade carving illustraing the Gathering of Poets at the Lan T'ing Pavilion, created in 1784

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