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Writing Quote: What’s that word that means…?

May 2, 2010

Today’s writing quote just struck me as funny, because I have this problem all the time in writing:

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.

~Baltasar Gracián

This so often happens to me.  I’m buzzing along, writing my happy little heart out.  The words are cascading out of my like droplets forming a hazy rainbow around a waterfall.  And then, BAM!, out of the blue, I come to a screeching halt.  Because something in the story happened for which there is a perfect word to describe it.  But for whatever reason, that perfect word escapes me.  Like, it’s there, on the tip of my tongue.  I know the word; it’s part of my regular vocabulary.  But I just can’t force the word out of the back of my mind where it remains half-formed and onto the page.

Finally, I will give up, fill it in with a synonym that means almost the same thing, and move on.  But the groove was broken, and I’ve been taken out of the moment, and that lousy synonym just sits there screaming that it’s just slightly out of place.

Ultimately, I have to shrug my shoulders and move on.  Some day the word will return to me.  But it will be too late, by then.

Has this ever happened to any of you?

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 1:09 pm

    Usually I won’t stop until I find that work I was thinking of or else it will drive me mad! Actually I think there’s a quote by Stephen King. (Looks it up) Found it:

    “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

    • May 2, 2010 1:10 pm

      I mean word, not work. It’s too early on Sunday morning 🙂

    • May 3, 2010 8:43 pm

      An interesting counter-qoute. 🙂

      The problem is, it drives me mad, too. Ah well.

      What I think King is getting at is that it is usually better to pick the straight-forward, simplest, and most readily-remembered word. This is the word that is most likely to exist in your reader’s vocabulary, after all. Where I think the venerable Mr. King is wrong is here: what happens when the word you remember, for whatever reason, is not the most straight-forward or most likely to be in your reader’s vocabulary?

      • May 3, 2010 11:29 pm

        I’ve always interpreted the quote a little differently. I think it has to do with the writer’s vocabulary rather than the reader’s. If I am using a thesaurus to arbitrarily pick out a different word, that word is likely not part of my regular vocabulary, and would not fit the style of my writing. It might seem forced or out of place. Half-remembered words, in this case, would be an exception because those words are not truly arbitrary – just like when you forget the name of a distant acquaintance, or get tongue tied.

        That’s my theory anyway 🙂

      • May 4, 2010 11:00 am

        Well, I like your interpretation.

  2. Lua permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:13 am

    “But for whatever reason, that perfect word escapes me. Like, it’s there, on the tip of my tongue. I know the word; it’s part of my regular vocabulary. But I just can’t force the word out of the back of my mind where it remains half-formed and onto the page.”

    This sounds way too familiar! 🙂
    Sadly, this happens to me a lot, Thesaurus is my best friend and I always go back at the end of my writing session and try to get it right. Sometimes I can and other times I just have to stick with the synonym…

  3. May 3, 2010 12:53 pm

    oh, yes – especially since I write in ESL! 😉 And imagine when I can’t find the word neither in English nor the Italian “equivalent” (translation is a tricky matter, more adaptation than literal translation. I do think in English, but some things are better expressed in Italian and vice versa…).
    Anyway, I tend to either leave the blank and keep going (at least till the end of the sentence) or write the synonym in pencil and leave it to revision (uhm… did I mention I handwrite the first draft? Then I type it in the PC with internet open so I can check any online dictionary for meanings/thesaurus).

    • May 3, 2010 8:58 pm

      Handwrite your first draft? That’s hardcore!

      I make many (but not all) of my notes by hand and type them later, but story drafts are all done in the computer. And I make copious use of online dictionaries and thesauri. (Sometimes just to make sure I’ve picked the word with the right mood and connotation to it – which can be a particularly challenging problem when writing across languages.)

  4. Tim Burton permalink
    May 15, 2010 8:06 pm

    So whats the word that means the end of the world?

    • May 17, 2010 9:21 am

      You’re in luck! As a fantasy and science-fiction writer, I make it my business to know the sorts of various words that refer to the end of the world (although that’s not what this post was about, but I’ll bite and answer your question anyway).

      The one that most people are familiar with, of course, is “Armageddon”. Most people think this means “the end of the world”, and so it does in colloquial usage. However, originally the word did not mean that, quite so much. The word Armageddon comes from biblical tradition (notably the Book of Revelation, chapter 16 verse 16, “And he gathered them [the kings of the earth, for your reference] together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.” [KJV]). The word is an amalgamation of the actual Hebrew words Har Megiddo, which means “Mountain of Megiddo”, Megiddo being a plain (oddly without mountains) on which numerous battles for the fate of Israel had historically been fought. The general interpretation was that the gathering of Kings to do battle at Har Megiddo represents a last and final battle for the fate of the world (whether figuratively or literally will vary depending on different religious traditions). In this way, it being one of the principle events in John the Revelator’s history of the end of the world, it eventually became synonymous with the end of the world itself. (For more on the meaning of Armageddon, I refer you to the wikipedia entry on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armageddon.)

      Another common word to refer to the end of the world is “Apocalypse”. Interestingly, Apocalypyse is really just a Greek word that means “Revelation” and thus was the Greek name for the biblical Book of Revelation. Since that book is most famous for its detailed (and highly symoblic) account of the end of the world, the word Apocalypse eventually came to mean the end of the world as well.

      Another word that is occassionally used is “Holocaust”, referring in this instance not to the Holocaust of the Jews by Nazis during World War II (as if that were not terrible enough) but to a global holocaust. The word holocaust, originally, was a Greek word referring to the burnt offerings used in religious sacrifices, being a compound word who’s two parts mean “Burnt whole” or “wholly burnt”. In that form, the word can also refer to complete destruction, especially that by fire, which is an image that often figures into many ideas of the end of the world.

      Other phrases that may refer to the end of the world include “Day of Reckoning” and “Judgment Day”, both references to God’s judgment of all men, whether they be good or evil, which is believed to take place at the end of the world.

      Finally, I have one more word, “Eschatology”, which means “the study of beliefs about the end of the world”, and generally concerns various theological end-times beliefs. So, you may see reference to “Christian Eschatology” meaning Christian beliefs about the end of the world, or “Islamic Eschatology” referring to Muslim beliefs about the end of the world, and so on.

      Hope you found what you were looking for!

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