How to choose words. Custom Essay Writing


How to choose words

Piss and Urine

What is the difference between "piss" and "urine"?

Technically, they are two different words for the same substance. But we all know which is proper and which improper, which to use in polite company or in formal college papers, and which to use in the locker room. Why? Does the fact that doctors prefer "urine" make it acceptable? If so, what caused the doctors or whomever to choose the two-syllable word-sound over the one-syllable word-sound? How do such word choices get made?

The answer is "history."

When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he brought with him a French-speaking aristocracy, imposed on the local Anglo-Saxon population a French ruling class, and created in the process a two-tier social order in which the rulers spoke a Latinate or Romance language and the vulgar peasants spoke their native Anglo-Saxon tongue. Hence, the use of Latin came to signify a member of the aristocracy, and the use of four-letter Anglo-Saxon words came to signify a peasant. In Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Morgan le Fay has a musician executed because he praised her beautiful "red" hair. For persons of a certain social rank, explained Twain, the word for that color is "auburn." By calling her hair "red," the unfortunate musician was implying that Morgan le Fay was an AngloSaxon peasant. By putting this distinction in Arthurian England, centuries before the Norman invasion, Twain was committing a horrendous historical anachronism. Nevertheless, the point is a good one for our purposes.

Our language still carries that same political distinction. Fourletter Anglo-Saxon words like "piss" are, literally, vulgar; Latinate words like "urine" are acceptable if not polite. Ezra Pound, the wacko Fascist poet who taught Hemingway how to write, hated the way English toadied to the Latin oppressor. He raged whenever an American writer used a word like "autumn" when the perfectly acceptable Anglo-Saxon "fall" was available.

In England today, in response in part to the French obsession with criminalizing the use of English words like "le weekend," a group called "The Pure English Movement" is trying to eliminate Latinate words from English. These folks want to return to pure Anglo-Saxon words. No "copulation" or "fornication" for them!

The larger point is that our word choices, however unconscious, are loaded with political, social, historical, aesthetic, and moral values that we soak up from our cultural history. Very few words are neutral; almost every syllable we utter has a history and therefore the potential to offend some sensitive soul somewhere. The goal of a value-neutral language is not possible, even if it were desirable, which it is not. We are responsible as writers to be aware of the significance of the words we choose, to know whom we might be offending and why, or why not. Why use this word instead of some other? Why this image or metaphor when a newer one might better make our point?

Think about the words you choose. Avoid wasting words. Intransitive verbs, verbs "to be" and other verbs that simply sit there doing nothing, can almost always be replaced by good, strong, value-loaded action words. Don't say, "The Normans went to England in 1066." Say, the Normans invaded or sailed or conquered or raped or liberated or some other word that adds more information, color, feeling, or opinion to the story. Whenever possible, eliminate "there is" and "it is" from your paper. Replace the pronoun with a noun and the intransitive verb "to be" with an action verb, and be specific. Instead of writing "There was a demonstration on campus yesterday," write "A mob of angry vegetarians destroyed the dean's flower garden in a demonstration against the serving of cooked animal flesh in the campus cafeteria yesterday." Don't choose the first verb or noun that pops into your head. Search for a better one. That is what makes the difference between good and mediocre writers...

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