Roget’s Gift: Limp noses and gigantic boobs
Words are strange and beautiful things, depending on the order in which you place them.
Many words can have the same meaning, but there is nuance and innuendo that might change the entire meaning of a sentence.
Writers have to be careful to use the meaning closest to their intent. In the modern world, it seems that as long as you get close, the rest can be inferred, witness text messaging and vanity license plates. But there is a danger in inferring incorrectly, so we are fervent, almost to a fault, in our search for just the right word.
I would rather leave a blank space on a draft than fill it with a word that doesn’t have the precise meaning I am trying to convey. Unfortunately, my thoughts don’t translate into the written word without some real effort. That’s why I keep Roget’s Thesaurus by my side.
Roget had a type of mental illness with which he coped by making lists. Many times these lists were divided into categories and rewritten. The longer the list, the better he felt. His longest list was a list of words, categorized by meaning. This list was eventually published late in his life and became the book on which many writers depend for options.
Should I be concerned that the book I use nearly every day was written by a madman? I suppose I have to be part lunatic to try to write while raising five children anyway.
Having a good grasp of word meaning is important to me. I am proud to say that my 10-year-old uses his vocabulary quite proficiently, but not without some challenging pitfalls.
For example, he once thought that by “grounding” him I meant to bury him in the ground. Obviously, I did not make myself clear. He totally took the wind out of my sails.
When he asked, while studying history, what a tariff was, I told him that it is a tax on goods. Later, I read his worksheet that asked for the definition of tariff. He had written, “attacks on gods.” I can only blame myself for this misunderstanding.
A passage in a book he was reading mentioned the bubonic plague. He somehow envisioned people walking around with huge breasts. After I finished rolling on the floor with laughter, I explained, between hiccups, that “bubonic” is not a cross between “gigantic” and “boob.”
“Actually,” I explained, “one of the symptoms of bubonic plague is buboes, which is a swelling of lymph nodes.”
“So your nose goes limp because you’re sick?” he surmised.
“Lymph-ph-ph nod-d-des,” I said, emphasizing the ignored but crucial letters.
“Oh,” he said, but I could tell he still didn’t understand. I wonder how long he will hold in his mind the fascinating image of people suddenly toppling over and expiring under the sheer weight of their ballooning chests.
It’s not the word used here, it’s the meaning that is important.
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Laura Snyder, a nationally syndicated columnist, author and speaker, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.