one about words

Lately, I’ve been pondering the difference between thinking and contemplation. Thinking has more than its share of negative connotations. For example: If someone shouts “Think!” at you, they’re not too happy with whatever it is you just did. (In my experience, anyway.) No one’s ever shouted “Contemplate!” at me, but it wouldn’t feel as bad, would it?

“Sure,” I’d reply. “That’s a great idea, Jim. I’ll be out in the garden, contemplating!”

If I tell people “I need time to think,” it sounds wilted and pathetic: “You’re a grown man, Dave, but go have your little tantrum and let us know when you’ve figured the universe out!” On the other hand, if I solemnly announce that I’m taking a week off the Maven Game for a “period of contemplation,” I’m a bona fide thought leader. (Yes, thought leaders don’t actually think, they contemplate. In the words of the Canadian thought leader Alanis Morissette,  “Isn’t it ironic?”)

I’ve got to give more contemplation to the nouns I use. Verbs, too. Heck, all the Mad Lib categories. Adverbs? My choice of words says (conveys) a lot (a great deal? a muchness?) about me, my taste, my education, my philosophy of communication. This might be a whole new avenue (boulevard? thoroughfare?) of personal branding I’ve never really…contemplated before.

Recently, I finished Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, a slim collection of essays about books and the people who love them. Fadiman’s a strong writer. She’s also wordy. I can’t stress enough that this is a distinct attribute. In one book, she uses enough ten-dollar words to buy herself a complete OED. (I’d link to the page where you can buy the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, but I’ve discovered that the link on their site is dead. How am I supposed to get any writing done with a one-volume dictionary?) It’s a bit much, Fadiman’s recklessly profligate verbiage. It’s tiring to read over long stretches.

As a young reader, I’d look up new words immediately and commit them to memory. As a kid, you don’t have a good way—when, for example, reading classic literature—to distinguish between the words you actually need to know and the ones that are long out of fashion. You end up using outmoded words in conversation with deleterious effect. To paraphrase our president: lugubrious. As a professional writer, I have to be judicious with the archaic and needlessly obscure. Words like recondite and otiose are linguistically charming, but actually using recondite words in your prose is otiose. Dead words died for a reason—leave them buried. 

Strike a balance. You want to be seen by others as insightful, educated, and wise. The directest path is through your choice of words, not in what you say but how you say it. Like silver nitride, words are fussy, delicate, and highly combustible. They matter. The sizes of our individual vocabularies vary, but each and every one of us parses language with the ferocious perspicacity of a Talmudic scholar when those sentences matter to us. Just watch the participants on the Netflix reality show The Circle obsessively analyze and reanalyze each other’s gnomic social media utterances for signs of deception. Who’s the catfish?

We’re all the catfish. If you contemplate about it.