Word Choice. What does it mean? It’s a subject that, as far as fiction writing is concerned, could fill up an entire book. Certainly, in the larger sense Word Choice is, and I quote the College Handbook of Creative Writing: “[finding the right] sound of the words, the shades of meaning, and the images the words evoke.” The book goes on to say, “Some writers and critics have even gone so far to insist that finding the precise word (le mot juste) is what good writing is all about.” Certainly it’s what make a piece powerful when it can say exactly what it means.
The literal, or the dictionary definition, is also important. What does the word actually mean. Backing your words up with a dictionary gives them power and power gives the writer command of her commentary. “I can back up what I’m saying,” she tells us, “and here’s the authority to prove it.” Your word choice tells as much of a story as the words you string together – as much as your sentences, your paragraphs, pages and chapters tells us, as much as your book entire.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “I have a dream.” That is very powerful. “I have” means that he owns it, it’s mine. “Dream” is this big vision that he will now illustrate for you; he will make the nebulous vision clear. So, what does it mean when Langston Hughes writes of a “Dream Deferred”? Could he be hooking into Dr. King’s epic speech? Could be giving a subtle critique of it? Or perhaps the society that says they like Dr. King’s speech, but aren’t really going to do anything about it?
What does it mean to take Word Choice one step further and not simply think about the sound of the word, the shade of meaning or the images evoked, but what power structure they imply? How does one politicize one’s word choice? The words chosen are done so to evoke not just an image, but an emotional response to get the audience engaged, perhaps even influenced. Sometimes the wrong way.
I remember watching Spike Lee’s movie Malcom X, the scene where Malcom reads the definition of the word “black” in the dictionary. All of the connotations where negative. Darkness, evil, impure. The character screamed in rage. He hated that society had made him into that dictionary definition, one he knew that he did not fit. I wondered if this was the reason that the Black Panthers, and the African American community of the 1960s and 70s, had adopted the slogan, “Black is beautiful.” Taking the dictionary definition and turning it on its head. Instead of white being fair and lovely, “she walks in beauty like the night.” I don’t know if it changed society’s mind about the African American community, but it did empower it. The slogan was a way to take back the word “black” and make it something more complex than just a cowboy hat that a movie villain wears. Black also can be beautiful, sacred, complex, and beloved. Black was not simple black was a complex of many things few of which the greater whole understood.
Many other words have been reclaimed. Women have reclaimed the word “bitch” to mean someone who is strong and independent who won’t be nice – won’t be your doormat. Gay men have worked to reclaim the word “queer” as a source of pride (as in it’s okay to be different, “we’re queer, we’re here”) instead a hated outsider and the black community the N word (no I won’t write it, I’m white) as a word of brotherhood and solidarity.
Even today words have political power. People tweeting “Black Lives Matter” turned into a political movement. And candidate Hilary Clinton got into a lot of trouble when she changed those words – a feeling among the activists in the community that a powerful white person was trying to change the movement with her verbal misstep. Some of her supporters claimed that she was just being an idiot, she was trying to show that she felt that all minority movements deserve a shout out, but absconding with the words of the movement was the wrong way to do it – she should have known better. The activists worked hard to give those words meaning, motion and power, they weren’t about to let anyone take that away.
I had published a poem on this blog called “The White Man Pressed the Locks” about a white couple parked in a car in a black neighborhood who pressed down their locks as the author of the poem wandered by. They’d done this without knowing who he was. They couldn’t trust what he really was: a well-to-do man, a professional man, a family man with a successful career. All they read on his face was black man – danger!
In his poem, he speaks of the body of the city. Of corpuscles and arms and varicose veins. Words that represent the body. We see a body and we read what we want to, not what that body contains – not the true spirit of the person. We lock out that person, we don’t reach out and try to get to know who that person actually is. We keep each other apart. I have the white part of the city, you have the black.
I complained in my post that the word “urban” meaning “city-like” was code for black, but that isn’t what the city really is. That urban conjures up the image of something dirty, unkempt, pitiful, unruly and crime ridden. I live in the city, I love it here and that connotation is not what it is. Those things are there, but that only scratches the surface of what the city really is. A city is a vibrant and colorful entity with every sort of person, every sort of experience, with all the bad and all the good squished up together in a joyful chaos of life. Perhaps it’s actually a more hopeful place to be, a place to express yourself more freely, more truthfully. Unlike the suburbs where it’s cold and polite, where nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. Where emotions are reserved and you aren’t very free to be who you really are. Don’t stand out in the suburbs or the Home Owner’s Association will kick you out.
Perhaps “urban” should be code for multi-cultural, free to express yourself, free to be as large or small as you want to be, free to be complex and interesting. Let’s reclaim that word and let’s use words to empower ourselves and to build a kinder, more just world. We have them within our command, these powerful tools that are democratic and can be used for good.