Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Exact Right Word

So I’m waiting in line to buy groceries the other day, leafing through a very literary magazine I grabbed off the rack to pass the time before I got up to the register. (Ok fine, it was US Weekly. But they don’t stock Time or Newsweek near the registers. If they did…well, at least I’d have the option of picking them up.)

In front of me, there’s this couple having a heated discussion about something. Not arguing with each other but really hashing something out. I wasn’t sure what though, because I wasn’t really listening. (Which is actually kind of unusual. The truth is I’m an inveterate eavesdropper/voyeur/rubbernecker…all writers are, frankly. I’m obviously super discreet about it, but I’m always on the lookout for possible material for a story or just a good line. Consider this fair warning if you have writer friends: They will eventually steal from your life.)

So, out of the “corner of my ear” (to coin a phrase), I hear “What does fickle mean?” After a second of silence I glance up and see them looking at me expectantly and I realize the question is directed at me. I guess I was the only reader in sight and therefore an authority on word definitions. (See? US Weekly is real reading!)

My mind goes blank for a second. The first thing I think is “Fickle means fickle.” Because it does. But that doesn’t help this couple.

So I start rifling through the synonyms of fickle in my mind and the second thing I think is “It means capricious.” But I quickly figure that if they don’t know what “fickle” means, chances are that “capricious” will leave them even more confused.

“Um,” I say, trying to talk my way through it, “it means…you change your mind a lot.”

They look at each other and all but slap their foreheads and go “Ohhhh, that’s what she meant!”

So now I’m actively listening to their conversation, which I feel I have permission to do now that they’ve basically invited me into the discussion. I get the gist pretty quickly: the guy got this text from some girl calling him “fickle” and they were both trying to grasp her meaning.

“She’s saying you’re, like, indecisive,” the girl tells the guy, who I’m deducing is her boyfriend. I feel a pang of disagreement. “Well…not really,” I think, but remain silent.

“But is she saying it in a negative way?” the guy asks. I begin to say “Probably” but then the line starts moving and the conversation slides inexorably away from me. A few minutes later, as my groceries are being rung up, I’m still thinking of what they said.

When I got out to my car, I fired up the Kindle app on my iPhone and did some poking around in the trusty Oxford American dictionary, and I confirmed two things:

1) “Fickle” is almost certainly pejorative. You can tell this by looking at its etymology and seeing that it is derived from ficol, an Old English word meaning “deceitful.”
2) It doesn’t mean indecisive, exactly. “Fickle” means changing frequently, especially as regard one’s loyalty, interests, or affection. “Indecisive” means not having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively. The difference is subtle, I grant you, but I humbly submit that there is a difference.

But really, I think only writers care about these kinds of distinctions. Everyone else goes through their day not particularly caring too much about achieving exactitude in their casual interactions with others. Frankly, it’s probably a lot less stressful that way. I wish I could shut off my writerly mentality sometimes. There are times when someone tells me a lengthy anecdote or something and I end up not getting it because I was too distracted by his using “invoke” when he meant “evoke” or some other picayune error he made.

I’ve never heard of a writer who wasn’t super precise with language. Writers care about everything: word choice, punctuation, grammar. To non-writers, I bet it all just seems really anal. But when I hear about other writers’ hang-ups, I empathize completely. For example, here’s what Robert Gottlieb said about Robert Caro, an author he is editing who is writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson: “What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

When I read that, I nodded because I totally understood.

Of course, it’s not only super hard to get everything exactly right in speech, it’s impossible. Usually things are happening too fast for you to conjugate every verb correctly or chose an especially piquant word that perfectly conveys what you are trying to say. But that’s one of the joys of writing and reading for me. When I write something, I can spend as much time as I want noodling over how to express an idea or tell a story. Writing affords me the chance to “get it right.” And when you read something, you’re reading the words of someone who has probably given them a lot of thought and you’re getting as clear an articulation as they can make of what’s on their mind.

That’s why I want to go find that couple and say, “You know, when that girl said you were fickle, she probably meant you were fickle.”


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