Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The right word

One night during my college days I had the opportunity to escort two coeds back to their dormitory. Along the way we met a mutual friend, who inquired what we were up to. I replied that I was simply "walking these ladies to their lair." I'm sure it was the alliteration that drew me to that particular choice of words, which got a laugh and an expression of mock offense from the girls. At least I hope it was mock offense. At any rate we remained friends.

lair is defined as a den for animals or a hideaway, so maybe it was not the precise word for the situation. Yet it worked, I think. It turned an ordinary statement into something memorable, or at least memorable to me. This happened about 50 years ago.

Early in the Michael Cox novel The Glass of Time, there is a line that goes, "If she has suffered, well, there is suffering enough in the world, and we shall each have our share before we are released." It was the word released that caught my attention. It's not the word one would expect, not a synonym most of us would choose for dead. But it works, turning a routine sentence into something a little thought-provoking.

In another novel I am currently reading, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, I was drawn to this sentence: "Another army of sluggish minutes dragged by." In that simple sentence of just seven words, at least three of them -- army, sluggish and dragged -- jump out at you. You could say the sentence is not just redundant but doubly so. Virtually every word in the sentence says the same thing, that Philip Marlowe is waiting a long time. Yet the metaphor he creates of a tired army of minutes is so much better than simply writing, "I waited a long time."

At the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which I visited last weekend, there is a display of lyrics of notable songs as they were originally written down on paper. These lyrics are greatly enlarged. I noticed that when Kris Kristofferson wrote down the words for Help Me Make It Through the Night, he first wrote the line, referring to the woman's hair, "shake it free and let it fall." But he crossed out free and replaced it with loose. It was just a small change, yet an important one that made the song better and all the more memorable.

Whether we are speaking or writing, small word choices can make a big difference.

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