Most Beautiful Words

A reposting of a list of 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language has me wondering what my own favorites would be.

For example, bucolic doesn’t make my list. Its meaning, in a lovely rural setting, certainly qualifies, and that definition chimes beautifully in the ear, but bucolic’s cacophonous sound suggests it would mean sick cow.

Nor do I care for long latinate words when a more accessible word will do. I prefer cat lover to ailurophile.

I  concur on onomatopeia and panacea, but my favorite word has to be lullaby.

Remember when Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street sang the L song? Bert had “light bulb and lamp post,” while Ernie advocated the “lilting and lovely ones” like “laughter, lullaby, lollypop.” So Bert the boring came up with “linoleum!” The humor came in juxtaposing a melodic word with its pedestrian meaning.

For me, the most beautiful word captures the precise meaning you’re looking for, its phonetic symbolism matches its meaning, and its cadence fits the prosody of your passage. Good thing we can rummage around in this language with the largest vocabulary available; with a half million words to choose from, sometimes we can have it all.

What would you nominate as a most beautiful word?

Dialogue Skills

Can you write believable and interesting dialogue? It’s a skill we all need. In fiction, it’s a given. Drama, more so; poetry, maybe. And nonfiction? You’d be surprised. The most academic writing requires us to introduce other researchers and quote them intelligently.

Kathy Temean (who also deserves thanks for leading an SCBWI chapter) shared this great set of Dialogue Tips.

You know you’re an amateur if your characters walk on and say, “Hi, Bob. I haven’t seen you since your sister married my uncle before they died returning from their honeymoon in that shipwreck off the Faroe Islands.” If so, please begin with Kathy’s Tip 1: “Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition.” (Hey, that one also ignores my “Question the Preposition” advice.) Master all seven of Kathy’s tips and we’ll want to listen to your characters–or your fruit fly geneticists–the whole book long.

Letting Your Goal Carry You

There is such joy in keeping a personal commitment. I keep blogging, logging in these little laps around the language. I keep breathing. At the end of our 21 Day Meditation Challenge, the Chopra Center’s davidi asked, “Who could have believed that this would be so effortless, fun, entertaining, engaging and powerful?” It does add up beautifully, when we engage one day at a time, plus another, and another. When the goal is simple enough and the support strong enough, the wave carries us along.

And davidji added, “As far as I know, there are eight billion people who opted not to join us over these three weeks, so you are the bold ones! You are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

How’s your own resolution coming? Time to recommit? Revise? Or celebrate? Is your goal simple enough to be achievable, discrete enough to be parceled into your daily routines? One page a day is a long manuscript a year. One line a day is a poetry career. One kindness a day, a stronger relationship. One book read a day, your expertise.

The year is still young. What do you want to do with it day by day?

I Am Woman; Call Me She

Facebook logoSince Facebook already knows whether you are male or female, and even distinguishes between your “Cousin (male)” and “Cousin (female),” a distinction the English language doesn’t make, then why can’t you have “his” or “her” in your profile updates? He “changed their profile.” “It’s their birthday.” Even if you’re a twin or so, how many of you are taking action on your singular account? So Facebook has recently revised its most awkward profile update! “It’s their birthday” is now “It’s [insert name]’s birthday.” I am delighted. That’s another way to handle this tricky pronoun matching.

Many editors have given in to the colloquial mismatch of certain singular subjects with plural pronouns, as in “Everyone should master their native language.” But when the subject is a known person, and the platform has already classified you by gender, why be lazy?

This construction is primarily a singular-plural issue, but it’s also a gendered language issue. I am woman; call me She.

Two decades ago, I resisted some of the gender-sensitive revisions as silly. Chairman became chair, which was perfect. But when a university vice-president stopped the presses on the student handbook I had written so she could change ombudsman to ombudsperson, I argued against it. It was an ugly solution, and it didn’t match the sign on the door or the listing in the directory. Who knew how many faculty senate meetings it would take to change it? And what was next? Hu-person? I lost.

A few years later, I heard Alleen Pace Nilsen present some of her gender-based language research. She studied preschoolers and learned that no three-year-old believed a mailman could be a woman. Man was not innately generic.

I still dragged my editorial pencil. I had distinguished between the pronounced schwa of ombudsman as generic, and the short a in mailman as specific, so I gave that up. Yet I still resisted excluding myself from the historic generic, as in “All men are created equal” (though women weren’t voting at that time) and “One small step for man–one giant leap for mankind.” Count me in!

Because I am old enough to remember stewardess, waitress, and mailman, I still feel delight whenever I hear or speak of a flight attendant, server, or mail carrier. Notice that none of these include that awkward suffix, person. There are usually more elegant solutions.

We’d all cringe if you called me authoress or poetess. They sound pejorative and we’d know you’re at least ninety. And yet, I also cringe when a woman who performs on stage or film prefers actor. Can you imagine the Academy Awards becoming so generic, there’s only one Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor award? (Want to guess who would usually win?) Acting is one career where gender still matters—in a good way. Anytime someone is cross-cast, you can bet it’s a major plot point. That’s because acting imitates life, and gender is, well, a fact of life.

By the way, in Spanish, gender is far more frequently classified, so Facebook confuses many more terms in that language. I’m sure they’ll get it right soon. We know Facebook’s coders are smart enough to add a few corrective lines.

Thank you for polishing the details in your prose. One small step for pronouns—one giant leap for humanity.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Image: Facebook’s logo

Meet linguists Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen (Don was my thesis chair.)

“The Power of Receiving”

“Doesn’t it make sense that if you want something—whether to meet the love of your life, get a great job or increase your financial stability—you need to know how to receive it?”

— Amanda Owen, The Power of Receiving

Amanda Owen, The Power of Receiving, Book Cover
Amanda Owen, The Power of Receiving

Amanda dedicates her book “to all who give and give and give.” When I met Amanda through, this almost published book (Tarcher) sounded like something I urgently needed–along with most other people I know.

Well, it’s here! We celebrated with her at a book signing tonight, where she generously shared the first few steps toward balancing the yin and yang, the reciprocity of giving AND receiving, in our relationships and everything else.

First, accept all compliments! Amanda will receive many herself as this guide catches on. A couple decades ago, she began questioning the ways our culture values giving and scorns receiving, which is unnatural. “Who is the Giver and who is the Receiver when we look at the relationship between a butterfly and a butterfly bush?” She has long studied reciprocity, and then tested these principles and exercises with her counseling and coaching clients and workshop participants. The culture is finally ready to receive her message.

Here’s another quotation that will speak to any writer: “Definition of reciprocity: ‘a willingness or readiness to receive impressions or ideas.'” I’m looking forward to receiving plenty of those!

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Image from the book’s site

Not a Poem a Day

“It isn’t every day that the world arranges itself into a poem.”

— Wallace Stevens

Wally must have been as disappointed about that as I am. Maybe every day a poem lurks in your peripheral vision. Most slink away. Some are mirages; others, characters for another day. Some walk right up and turn themselves in, and some can be ambushed, while others take you down. You might wrestle with one for hours, months, or years. Finally, the last word clicks into place, the punch line hits the mark, the sound and the meaning both ring true. To pin it to the mat is joy. The poem cries, “Enough!” And the poem is pleased, too, having won its own kind of victory over you.

No, for me, that doesn’t happen every day.

But a blog post a day? A simple slice of prose? An opinion or observation, however poetically unexpressed? Why not. Join us. If nothing else, the greatest way to improve one’s writing is to write: quantity trumps all.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010