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.