Sunday, 24 March 2013

As Shakespeare said . . .

 . . . “Whate’er you think, good words, I think, were best” (King John)
I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently. That’s hardly surprising, I hear you say, given that I’m a writer currently studying other writers. But I’m talking about words per se, rather than as the building blocks of prose, poetry and drama. A few things prompted this.

Thanks to Twitter I saw the results of a quest to identify the ‘best’ word in the English language. Sadly I can’t find this now but I remember disagreeing with the results. Given the number to choose from (the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete ones) I would be surprised if consensus can ever be achieved. Bravo to anyone for even trying, though.

The BBC's Scottish news one morning told of delays on the Whifflet railway line. My husband admitted that despite being a Scotsman he didn’t know where Whifflet is and, worse still, he couldn’t understand why I was so taken with the name. I googled it, and discovered Whifflet is a part of Coatbridge to the east of Glasgow, and its name originated from ‘wheat flats’. As you’ll see if you go to Wikipedia, it isn’t as pretty as either name suggests.

Finally, last week I entered a writing competition which required a short poem or story about a made-up word. I might have passed on this, had it not reminded me of a word I occasionally use which came out of a conversation with my husband about where I get my story ideas from (yes, that old chestnut). ‘They come from my imagination, I just make them up’ met with the response ‘There must be more to it than that, or we’d all be able to write’. I admitted I don’t understand quite how my imagination does what it does, and John’s response was ‘See? It’s magic.’ And that was how ‘imagication’ came about. I wrote a poem about this which won’t get anywhere (I’m no poet) but it was fun to do.

All this recalled an interesting exercise I did as part of the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course a couple of years ago. After writing the letters of the alphabet in a column, we had to write two words against each letter: one that we liked because of its sound, the other because of its meaning. Then we had to go down the list circling our preference in each pair of words. So, for example, against ‘L’ I put ‘luminous’ (sound) and ‘laughter’ (meaning). Luminous was my favourite.

The course manual revealed a fascinating fact: nearly everyone will exhibit a marked preference for one aspect – sound or meaning – over the other. It’s very rare to find an even split. My results bore this out: I clearly (25 out of 26 words) appreciated words more for their sound than their meaning.

Does this influence my writing? Perhaps, in a subliminal way. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely to have an impact on my reading and appreciation of others’ writing, especially poetry. It certainly didn’t help my attempts to write poetry, which was the stated aim of the exercise.

Have a go yourself and see what aspect of words – their sounds or their meanings – you prefer. Then leave a comment below or tweet me - @janetokane - to say how you get on and if the result surprised you or confirmed what you already knew.

And finally, to demonstrate the importance of words: 

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