or, Etymology Won’t Teach You About Beetles
“Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
It’s apparently the thing to make fun of English on Facebook: memes abound. Today I saw a quote (attributed to David Burge): “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” My buddy sent me a set of proper English teacher mugs with helpful reminders like, “They’re there for their afternoon tea” and “I’m going to add two sugars, too.”
(Along about second grade I prided myself on coming up with the grammatically correct “That ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect.” Four ‘that’s! Count them. WHOA! I just did one better: “I always said that that ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect”. Guess that’s why I went to grad school for English, huh? Top that.)
Then everyone on FB will always comment something about English having no rules and English being the hardest language to learn as a result. . .Ha, ha, I laugh along with them, but part of me wants to proclaim, “NO! EVERYTHING IN ENGLISH HAPPENS FOR A REASON, AND IT’S FASCINATING!”
Whoa, sorry I shouted just there; that’s about three decades of pent-up enthusiasm for one of my favorite of all subjects: the History of the English Language. No other language in the world developed quite like ours, with a unique political history allowing a variety of languages in a variety of time periods each to dump a whole new vocabulary into the mix. And though for most this results in laughable pronunciations and spellings, the far more important and brilliant fact about English gets lost: we have more word choices than any other language!
He went up the stairs.
He mounted the stairs.
He ascended the stairs.
. . .And we have three different guys who need to get up the stairs, right? The first is a plumber, the second is a cheap romance-novel hero, the third is a bishop or something.
The plumber reached the second floor through English’s original origins as a Germanic language (to go, to wend). Dirk Kirkwood benefited from the French influence on the language following the Norman Conquest. His Eminence’s usual mode of transportation derives from the Latin influences our writers in English actively imported during the Renaissance in order to “beautify” our language for better-sounding poetry.
Three different sentences (which would usually translate into only the same sentence in another language) which technically do mean the exact same thing in English as well–and yet, they don’t. In English-teacher speak, the three sentences have the same DENOTATION but they don’t have the same CONNOTATION.
And we writers are always all about connotation: we’re always seeking to say things in a new way, yet we still want it to be the correct way, and we really really want to achieve that subtlety of expression that Heinlein celebrates and which “word-inventors” or word-importers like Shakespeare worked so hard to make possible. It’s so much easier to express ourselves with so many words to pick from–and that’s before you even employ colorful idioms and cultural allusions. Thank St. Francis de Sales for the Thesaurus.
Hold your jets.
All right, I admit it, while my vocabulary is astoundingly prodigious, I AM on the wrong side of 50 and more often than not these days I’m too slow to come up with the question on Jeopardy! –even though I know that I know it, I just can’t think of the word. So on my laptop, where I do most of my writing, the Firefox homepage is a thesaurus.
A thesaurus is wonderful for people like me who already know the words, who already understand the exquisitely subtle connotations of a given word, we just need reminding. The same tool in the hands of a beginning writer becomes as laughable as the English language is to an internet memester.
“If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of you, are not quite ready for a Spelling Bee.” –OH, NO THEY DIDN’T! Someone actually made a meme that complained about spelling at the exact same time s/he made the egregious grammatical error of separating the subject from the verb with a glaring comma. Hah!
So, yes, imagine the creative writing results someone like this would produce if you handed him/her a thesaurus. I could always spot the student who had gone out and bought a Roget paperback a mile off:
“We need to be fastidious not to under-estimate the perilous effects of global warming.” –Fine, I’ll be sure to bring along my hand sanitizer and St. George.
So where’s the good news? First, anyone reading an obscure blog like mine purporting to address “matters of peripheral interest to writers” isn’t the kind of person to fall into the leaf-covered Saurus-trap. You’re aware that denotation is not connotation.
Second, back up to where I (and also some famous writers, you can look them up) proclaimed English the best language on the planet for exquisite precision of expression. I’d like to add another assertion, the implications of which are even far more glorious: those of you who have grown up with a love of words and have grown up with English have had your very brains shaped by vocabulary to perceive reality with exacting complexity. Well, potentially. One always hopes.
It’s like the old paradigm presented in the saying that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow (which, incidentally, is not an urban myth… 2013 update). If your mind can comprehend fifty different kinds of snow and ice condition, then you literally do see your environment differently than someone who only has a couple words at play during winter.
Etymology will teach you about beetles and scarabs and coleopterans. . .
One of the best ways to tap into your English-speaking cultural advantage is to have a good look at the history of that language, how and when the words evolved, which in turn will give you greater understanding of why those various connotations exist. It’s true that most people wouldn’t tell you their plumber ascended the stairs while at the same time describing the Pope on TV going up some steps for his inauguration ceremony. Writers, however, can give a lot more depth as well as precision to their writing by studying word origins.
Navigating the requirements of graduate school can be treacherous.
Negotiating the requisites of graduate school can be tricky.
…This one’s easy to explore without having to consult your American Heritage dictionary. (Which is, btw, the best dictionary for Americans interested in etymology; I won mine in a 5th grade spelling bee and the rest is history.)
“Treacherous” has connotations of betrayal, with its origin meaning “to cheat”, whereas the word navigation brings to mind a sailor managing unexpected obstacles on the sea. Both have the implications that a graduate student is met with much that is out of her control.
“Negotiating” instead sounds like a person who is at least on equal footing with the task at hand, with its implicit meaning “to conduct business” and a further overtone of something that is actively worked at, not passively achieved. Combine with that the seeming-synonym for treacherous of “tricky” and we have an additional sense that the student is empowered to act upon grad school just as well as grad school springs surprises on the student.
Two sentences, but only in the second does the student seem more powerful. I might add that a “requirement” is something issued by one entity to another, whereas a “requisite” is a static or neutral condition of need–but I’m probably just over-thinking it now.
The next time you find yourself torn between two “big” words, have a look at their etymologies–and you might just be surprised. Usually that alone is enough for you to decide. But along the way you’ll find yourself exploring the origin of another word, and yet another. . .Soon you’ll be reading and writing untold layers of meaning in every new choice of words.
3 thoughts on “Taming the’Saurus–Dangerous in the Wrong Hands”
A post that warms my heart!
I used to think that my having a thesaurus open almost at all times that I am engaged in writing was like a big scarlet letter on my back marking me out as a non-native speaker of English. After reading your post, I realize that that idea is pretty absurd. Many times I use it to be reminded of the various connotations that synonyms of a word carry. The great point that you make here is that one needs to make informed use of the thesaurus, not just pick out synonyms randomly.
What I’m also taking from your post is a possible explanation of why I prefer to write in English: because there are so many words and connotations to play with! And that’s my favorite game in the world!
Yes, I am disappointed just how much I NEED the thesaurus these days because of my brain short-outs, but I suppose it would have been inevitable in a couple more decades anyway.
We all love to read, and yet it amazes me, I can count on one hand the number of writers I think have come close to using the full potential of the English language. (Shakespeare, Eliot. . .well, there are a few.)
But lest I seem overly-insular about my language, I do realize that the best of writers out there can make eloquence shine through a multitude of permutations and ever after centuries and centuries (thought a poetic translator helps). Sappho comes to mind.
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