The Right Word

If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones,’ that’s because blue is
the right word, believe me.

Gustave flaubert

Leonard Cohen once asked us to imagine the reunion of two old lovers in a hotel room, somewhat embarrassed by the “outrageous hope and habits in the craft” as they search for the “special caress, the perfect inflammatory word” that might prove that they’ve “survived as lovers (not each other’s but lovers still)” and now “own [their] own skins”. Scholarship is perhaps not so romantic, but it is important to remind ourselves of the aesthetic pleasure that follows from finding just the right word, le mot juste, to describe what we have learned from our studies, and imagine, as Nabokov imagined, the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck standing up. If only for a moment, we feel that we have found a way to preserve our knowledge forever. “What thou lovest well remains,” said Ezra Pound; “the rest is dross.”

Of course, just as there is no ideal paper, no ideal paragraph, and no ideal sentence, there is no such thing as the perfect word. Words are simply imperfect when compared to the things they name, which, though perhaps themselves inevitably flawed, are nonetheless exactly themselves, exactly what they are. We might of course also say that words are always true to themselves; but what will always be imperfect is the relationship between words and things. (“What relation must one fact have to another,” asked Bertrand Russell, “in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?”) Finding the right word is part of the struggle with what Robert Graves called “the huge impossibility of language,” the effort “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces,” as Mallarmé put it, or, again, the delicate search for Cohen’s “perfect inflammatory word”.

“The mission of the poet,” said Borges, “should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force.” Heidegger would no doubt have agreed. “The ultimate business of philosophy,” he said, “is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.” Both were concerned that what Borges called the “usury of time” was deflating the meaning of our words; indeed, Heidegger reminds us that we’re disposed to think of our guilt in terms of a “debt” we owe to “Them”. We must recover the force of language, one word, perhaps, at a time. We must know what they mean and insist on their meaning. That may be exactly what good writing is.

Again, I know you’re not as romantic about your words as the poets and philosophers of yore. But yesterday I attended a talk about foreign language studies at business schools that reminded me that we should encourage students to learn languages, not so much because it will give them access to foreign markets, but because it will give them access to exotic pleasures. You don’t need to spend a whole day, as Flaubert is reputed to have done, trying to decide whether a stone is “azure” or just “blue”, but there is a real satisfaction in finding a word that means what you want it to, both semantically and etymologically. Once you know what, say, “trenchant” and “salient” really mean, you can begin to deploy them in your writing to produce precise effects for the knowledgeable without too much confusion for the ignorant.

“I see that we no longer follow fashion,” says Cohen as he “makes a gift of necessity.” Many of our words enter the vernacular as fashions of the moment and leave it as they came. To insist on using a word, not because that is what “one” says (what “they” say) but because it is the word that means precisely what you want to say, is an essential part of the discipline of writing. Sometimes this forces you to write the sentence in a way that accommodates the word in question, sometimes it means finding another word that works correctly in the context you have already established. Make your gift of whatever is needed. Remember that “blue” is only the right word after “stones”. Believe me.

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