friday roundup: le mot juste, patterns, and “Dear Day”

root system from wikimedia

root system from wikimedia

Happy Friday, Reader! Do you know the phrase sunt lacrimae rerum? It’s from the Aeneid and it means (roughly) “there are tears in things.” I thought of the phrase last night when someone came to pick up one of the two family cars — the oldest one went, after 16 years of service — and two thirds of the kids burst into tears. Believe me, the car was nothing to cry over and there is a new-to-us used car in much better shape to take its place for the next 16 years (At which point, I said to Husband last night, we will be almost 60! His response: “DON’T.do.that.to.me.”). But it reminded me that things — objects — can become imbued with significance for us. I feel connected to my writing desk, certain pens and coffee mugs,  books, the antique, wooden Kraft cheese box I brought with me from our house in St. Paul (there were several built in to little nooks beneath the stairway).

I even have a tears-in-things relationship with our refrigerator. As in: I could cry, frig, at the speed with which you empty yourself out. 🙂 (This thought is always followed quickly with a little prayer of thanks for the fact of refrigeration and nearby grocery stores).

At any rate, on to the roundup:

let mot juste  Have you read John McPhee’s recent New Yorker article “Draft No. 4”? I always enjoy his pieces about the writing life, and this one is another winner. In it, he discusses finding let mot juste (a phrase employed by Flaubert meaning “the right word”). McPhee writes about using a dictionary — not a thesaurus — to find the right word. “At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste,” he says, Although…”If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.” (Whew!).  He notes that:

“The dictionary doesn’t let it go at [a list of synonyms]. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line — how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues… .”

Hmmm. I have a Concise OED, and it gives just a list of words. I could be convinced that I need a more exhaustive dictionary. I’m all for hues of meaning.

On the other hand, I find that in my work that the thesaurus serves me well, and that I most often rely on this etymology dictionary in preparation for drafting, and as I’m revising.

When drafting, I use etymology to dig deep into word roots of the phrases that come to me during free-writes. Last week, for example, the word “threat” presented itself in a free-write. With a thesaurus I found synonyms for “threat” including “portent.” I used an etymology dictionary to learn that “portent” is related to the words “stretch” and “extend.” That led me to some more language for the draft that includes stretching and leaning. I often find that an etymology dictionary will also help me find just the right word during revisions.

I say use whatever tools you can to find le mot juste. It’s always worth the search. (And P.S. here is a very handy online etymology dictionary).

patterns  I continue to make my way through Ellen Bryant Voight’s The Art of Syntax and I continue to love what I’m learning from it. One thing the author points out is that when it comes to language human beings are hungry for patterns, and that poetry is perhaps the best art form for employing language patterns (her words are: “And the art most attentive to pattern of every kind is poetry.”). She also discusses how breaking the pattern — or varying it slightly — can be a successful syntactical strategy. And speaking of patterns, here’s a famous old patterns poem.

“Dear Day”  When I say the words “Reading YM at the Pool, Age 12″ do you know what I mean? If you were twelve-ish in the early 80s, I suspect you might. I’ve been reading Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar, and “Reading YM at the Pool, Age 12″ is one of many of her fantastic poems that evoke the experience of adolescent girlhood at a particular point in history. Oh, Reader, I love this book! I love that she writes about living in books with chums and jalopies (Nancy Drew, anyone?). I love that she’s written postcards back to herself: “Trust me when I tell you to take that trip to Aspen.” I love it when poets claim something as their own, and then go out and write all about it. Here’s a poem from the collection (sorry, the poem with the chums and the jalopies is, sadly, not available online) called “Dear Day.”

Friday, you scaly beast, may you be gentle to all. Happy weekend, and thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “friday roundup: le mot juste, patterns, and “Dear Day”

  1. I have made a habit of using the dictionary in tandem with the thesaurus, especially after being exposed to students who, allergic to the dictionary, look up a word in the thesaurus based on wrong spelling, only to discover when their assignment is returned to them that the $5 word was worthless. An important lesson, to be sure.

    And try to be thankful for the tears as well as the laughter. It’s harder to do, for certain, but quoting Virgil makes it easier. The Aeneid is an all-time favourite, though I can only mention it in certain circles without folks giving me the giant green alien stare… 🙂

  2. Car incident: SAD 😦
    Refrigerator comment: TRUE and HILARIOUS
    Poem links: EXCELLENT
    Tree picture: CREEPY BUT I LOVE IT!
    Ellen Bryant Voight’s book: BUYING

    And….I agree with John McPhee about using the dictionary. The thesaurus is great, but sometimes reading the actual definition (as well as the etymology of words, as you mention) can take the poem in a much more interesting and intricate direction.

    Have a great weekend! 🙂

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