Monday, June 27, 2011
PLAYING WITH WORDS
As a teenager, I wanted to be an actress and hearing that Columbia University had an excellent drama department, I lied about my age and enrolled in two non-matriculating evening courses—one was Shakespeare presided over by a professor who impressed with her stature and imperial manner. The Bard of Avon’s sonnets and monologues rolled trippingly off her tongue as she gleaned every possible nuance from his words. I’m not sure if my memory serves me correctly or if my imagination is overactive but I think she told us to read the dictionary as well as Shakespeare for knowledge and enjoyment.
I often find myself doing just that. When looking up one word I think would perfectly describe a character or the words that each particular character would use in a specific situation, I lose myself in another word on the page. A word I’ve never seen in a book, magazine or newspaper, a word I’ve never heard spoken or a word that has more than one meaning—a meaning I’m unfamiliar with. When we write we have to find the right words, a hero’s speech would be nothing like a villain’s. Someone from the south uses language in a different way than someone from the west or east. People in different parts of the world will add hand gestures and facial expressions that add a new connotation to their words. Different generations use words in ways we never thought of and often change the meaning of words as we know them—think of the word gay, think of lyrics—standards from the pens of Hammerstein, Porter, Berlin, Mercer and Sondheim and think of rap in today’s world. When we’re children, a mother will explain the meaning of certain words to her child—twenty years later, the grown-up daughter will explain certain words to her mother.
Writers are often told not to use slang—slang dates—every generation invents its own. Words used by flappers in the 1920s—the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees, know one’s onions, Jazz age slang—big cheese, bubs, bull, the Great Depression with Apple Annie, New Deal and Hoovervilles, World War II servicemen brought cannon fodder and snafu to America’s attention, and cyberspace as we know it today has friendapalooza, LOL, TTYL and Peeping Tom. Some words once banned from the dictionary have taken root and can be found in the latest editions. I know I’ll keep on reading, and trying to find the right character for certain words that I want to use bearing in mind the warning not to use a dollar word when a ten cent word will do.
Are there words that you are longing to use?