“Modify” or “When Word(smith)s Fail”

So, I was chatting on the phone with my bestie-forever-and-always (the one and only Tirzah “Ink Caster” Duncan, of course), and one of us (I forget which, now) found herself groping for a word meaning “to change in form or character; alter”. We eventually settled on “modify” as the verb that would most neatly suit, but it was a long, awkward road to get there. And henceforth, it has been a running gag of my character Bruno’s to suggest “modify” as the word we’re searching for, never mind how close or way off base the suggestion may be.

            One might think that one who does a lot of reading and writing would, more often than not, have the perfect word on hand for any situation. Well, one would be wrong. Teasingly on the tips of our tongues, sure. On hand, not nearly always. An extensive vocabulary can prove itself a curse as well as a blessing.

(Logo property of NBC)

            …The worse you feel when the one word you want is hiding behind a jumble of inappropriate others. It’s not so terrible when I’m writing, because I can always take a timeout to turn to the dictionary or thesaurus for aid – a habit of mine that’s best used in moderation during a literary sprint like NaNoWriMo, but otherwise quite helpful. Verbal conversation, however, is a different story. With next to zero time to edit, I’m left scrambling for words that will even quasi-accurately convey what’s going on in my head. (Of course, half of what’s going on in my head is gobbledygook anyway, but it makes no difference: I want that gobbledygook expressed just so.)

            So, what do you do when you’re caught in the headlights of a conversation with the perfect word nowhere in sight?

            Um, uh, y’know, like… shoot, hold on a sec… *elevator music plays* Leave your audience hanging. It’s not like they have anything better to do than wait for you to get yourself together; life’s long enough. And you just know this pointless anecdote will be well worth the ten-minute intermission. Everything you say is gold, because you take the time, however painfully long, to ensure that it is so.

            Fake it ‘til you make it. Just use made-up words to hold your place or distract from how inept your mouth is being today. Necessity was the mother of the invention of words such as “whatchamacallit”, “doohickey”, and “thingummy”. Rather than accept defeat, turn this oral failure into an opportunity to coin the slang of tomorrow!

            Settle. Maybe the word you meant will reveal itself in the next minute, or pop up out of nowhere half-an-hour after it’s lost all relevance. Maybe the word that kept slipping just out of your grasp never meant what you’d thought it did anyway. Maybe it just doesn’t matter as much as you feel it does and you should simply allow some lesser synonym to take The Great Granddaddy of All Words’ place because, for pity’s sake, your audience is aging! Talk around it. Make do with what your brain’s willing to provide. Let go your impossible ideals and adjust your speech to fit your current limitations.

            Because sometimes, even we wordsmiths (or especially we wordsmiths) just need to know when to cut our losses and modify.

6 thoughts on ““Modify” or “When Word(smith)s Fail”

  1. Fake it.

    I think the point of communication is to share and get the point across. For instance, I don’t see much of a problem telling someone about “That thing that makes the engine whatsy-thing go up and down” when I can’t remember the word that starts with a “P” and rhymes with “Schmiston.” (What was that word…I can aaaalmost remember it…)

    It’s also annoying when two people are telling you a story and they have to break the action for like fifty minutes while arguing about whether it was “Mr. Smith or Mr. Cadwell,” even though you don’t know either and you couldn’t care any more about that as what time Earthrise on the Moon is. (For the record: there’s no such thing as Earthrise on the moon. Think about it.)

    But now…I ramble.

    • How are the poor Mooninites supposed to mark time with no Earthrise and -set to go by? Mm, maybe they count their revolutions around us and go from there. Anyhoot… Yes, we’re in agreement: A short-story stretched to novel length for the sake of a huge section on whether the word is X or the name is Y or the time/place was this/that or that/this does nothing to enhance my appreciation of the tale. A big part of storytelling? Timing!

      • Well put. Also, when we get sidetracked with pointless details about logistics and personas, we miss out on a big part of storytelling—the telling part.

        (Along those lines, what about that mantra that writers are taught since day 1? Shouldn’t it be storyshowing, not storytelling?)

      • You can only storyshow so much before it becomes a picturebook. A time and place for everything; the best tales find a balance. Perhaps it could be most completely called storyrevelation?

      • Does it? Dear me, that’s not usually my style. I guess I’m starting to sound too deep, dark, and layered for my britches in my old age, or something. X)

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