The Surprising Word

It’s time for my Sunday Reflection, in which I post some of my thoughts on almost any issue connected to writing, faith or life in general.

Last Sunday I wrote about the joy of knowing (and using) the ‘right word’ in any given situation. The more you read and experience the English language, the more you learn its nuances and idioms, those places where close just isn’t good enough, where there is a precise word to be used and nothing else will do.

At the same time, one of the joys of reading (and writing) is using a surprising word – a word that works, but that no one saw coming. This may sound like a contradiction of the notion that there’s often a right word, but I don’t think so. The issue is that every writer plays with both convention and innovation – as I’ve written about elsewhere – and there is a time to innovate even as there are times to observe convention.

For example, here’s a line from W.H. Auden with a word removed, Into many a green valley, drifts the __________________ snow.

What word would you have put in the blank? Wet? Heavy? White? Dazzling? Freezing? Swirling? Something else? All those are somewhat expected, and none of them would have had quite the effect of the word Auden actually did choose.

The word that Auden does insert is ‘appalling,’ so the original line actually reads Into many a green valley, drifts the appalling snow.

In a poem about time, and how it slips away from us all, conquering all our youthful dreams of love and longevity, the simple introduction of the word appalling in that line is very effective. The ‘green valley’ is an archetype of a happy place, and combining that term with the word appalling conveys the inevitable sadness and decay that come to all good things in this world, and the poem pivots in a powerful way in this and neighboring lines.

It is an example of a moment when a writer passed by all the expected words, found a surprising word – a word that was unlooked for, but that worked – and with it created a haunting image that lives on forever. Happy hunting in your own searches for the surprising word when you need it…