Friday, August 24, 2012

Le Mot Juste

The title, Le mot juste, the right word, is attributed to nineteenth century author, Gustave Flaubert. He says “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”  
I’m not sure I agree that writing talent only consists of choosing the right words, but I do believe most  writers search for the “right” word. Or should I say the exact, correct, proper, acceptable, appropriate, or prophetic word./ Each of those choices imply something a little different, therefore meanings and usage must be considered in the selection of words. Meaning can be complex!

Some word meanings have more power than others. When we think about words and what’s inside them, what gives a word secret power or broader meaning, we may find the  subtle reason for choosing one word over another.

 Take the word countenance. Are you looking for the noun definition – face, features, facial expression, look, or appearance? Example:  “His striking, handsome countenance”. Or do you want the verb meaning of countenance: tolerate, permit, allow, consent to, or hold with? Example:  It is not something the people are willing to countenance.

If you were looking for the right word to describe what would make someone willing to face extreme danger and you chose the word courage, you would have several meanings to consider. You might choose a slang word like guts: He has the guts to stand up to his boss. You may want a more formal meaning like fortitude: He has the fortitude to stand up for his beliefs. Or perhaps you would choose pluck:  She had the pluck to volunteer.

 Many writers use the tools button on computers to choose Thesaurus for help with word choice. I do. When that doesn’t satisfy or if I’m having trouble looking for that right word, I rely upon my printed copies of Roget’s Super Thesaurus or Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

 Some of us do not make our choices easily or quickly but in the end we hope that hunting for words makes for more interesting, powerful  reading. Maybe Flaubert is right. The right words make more powerful books.


Summer Ross said...

Perhaps the search for the right word is like an elusive mythical monster, it only exists in or minds. :)

Though there have been times my right word was spotted- I didn't take a photo- but I should have.
Wonderful post. Have a great day.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

My older son feels Flaubert was one of the best writers of all time. As for me, I believe writing poetry before I turned to prose fulltime was a great benefit. Poetry is all about choosing the right word--or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: "poetry consists of the best words in the best order." I suggest beginning writers look to writing poetry first.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Finding the right word takes time, and that's a good reason for writers to take time with their work. Good post and good examples.

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Can you give the quote by Flaubert in French, so we know how or where in the passage he uses the phrase, le mot juste? It would be useful also to know in which one of his writings is the phrase found.

There are hundreds of Web sites and blogs that offer us tons of quotes from famous people, but I have yet to find one where the source of the attribution is also mentioned.

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