Blog Excerpts

Flash, Gleam, Glint, Sparkle: McPhee, Woolf, and Words

In an essay on writing in last week's The New Yorker, John McPhee describes how, while editing a fourth draft, he draws boxes around words he wants to replace. "The final adjustments may be small-scale," he writes, "but they are large to me, and I love addressing them."

He uses a dictionary with some thesaurus-like features in this search for what he quotes Gustave Flaubert as calling le mot juste:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don't you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don't linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there's a box around "sensitive," because it seems pretentious in the context, try "susceptible." Why "susceptible"? Because you looked up "sensitive" in the dictionary and it said "highly susceptible." With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you. So draw a box around "wad." Webster: "The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallowwort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe." Oh. But read on: "A little mass, tuft, or bundle . . . a small, compact heap." Stet that one. I call this "the search for the mot juste," because when I was in the eighth grade Miss Bartholomew told us that Gustave Flaubert walked around in his garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste. Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird.

This, for example, came up while I was writing about the Atchafalaya, the huge river swamp in southern Louisiana, and how it looked from a small plane in the air. Land is growing there as silt arrives from the north. Parts of the swamp are filling in. From the airplane, you could discern where these places were, because, seen through the trees, there would be an interruption of the reflection of sunlight on water. What word or phrase was I going to use for that reflection? I looked up "sparkle" in my old Webster's Collegiate. It said: "See 'flash.'" I looked up "flash." The definitions were followed by a presentation of synonyms: "flash, gleam, glance, glint, sparkle, glitter, scintillate, coruscate, glimmer, shimmer mean to shoot forth light." I liked that last part, so I changed the manuscript to say, "The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water."

Compare McPhee's judicious use of the dictionary with Virginia Woolf's insistence that words are a messy tangle that elude our best efforts to tie them down in dictionaries and otherwise. (Find the full text of this essay or listen to Woolf reading it for radio in the only surviving recording of her voice on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog.)

[Words are] the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

. . . Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.

Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity — their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity that they survive. . . . when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die. Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light.

How does this make you think about your own usage? Does the "mot juste" come to you out of the darkness of your unconscious, or do you use tools like a dictionary or thesaurus in your heroic search? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 7th 2013, 2:34 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
I like your statement that you use much more time searching for words you know in the dictionary than words you don't know. I would concur with this. I always spend much more time on writing even the most casual email than most people, simply because I can't bear to send off anything that isn't written as well as I can possibly make it. I wish others would as well; many a misunderstanding and lapse in communication would be avoided if everybody considered what message they were sending by using this word instead of that, to say nothing of actual errors!
Tuesday May 7th 2013, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I am wholly on the side of Woolf. Every time I have used a Thesaurus, the only thing is has done is ruin each synonym for me and inspire me to create something else. (Perhaps it is doing its job in that way after all.)

Tiny surprise to me: a dictionary spelling okay 'O.K.' I had my hand slapped for that by editors almost forty years ago and haven't seen it in print, except for fiction where the writer creates a note from a person, showing the person to be not entirely educated. Have I been misled as to what is acceptable all these years? Honest question.

Also, to Thorunn S. - I also feel a flinch when I encounter a grammatical howler, but many people simply don't know better or don't care and wish to communicate. How can we deny the Web to them?
Sunday May 19th 2013, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Carla M. (Huntersville, NC)
I also love to find another dictionary-vs-thesaurus lover. I have a friend who is constantly recommending the thesaurus, but I far prefer a (good) dictionary. I LOVE mine. "See synonyms at...." When I see the list of synonyms, the subtle differences in meaning or connotation are there as well. LOVE that little gift!

re: dictionary spelling of O.K. Several years ago, on this site, I found a wonderful post about dictionaries: what they are, and what they aren't. What they aren't is an authority of what is correct/incorrect. What they are is a compilation of common usage(s). According to the author of the post, lexicographers are well aware of this. Most dictionary users are not.

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