Words From Long Ago

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I hadn’t planned on sitting in Herman Melville’s pew, but there I was in New Bedford, MA, in the Seaman’s Bethel, when I realized that just a few rows behind me had sat the author of “Moby Dick.” I got up and moved to his seat, hoping to absorb his affinity for words by osmosis.

Apparently he didn’t live in this city as long as most of us think. He had sailed out of New Bedford aboard the Acushnet in 1841 which inspired his great whaling epic, but spent only several weeks eighteen months later, attending this church. However, there is no doubt that he captured an era of seafaring adventure and left an indelible mark on the region.

I don’t remember being enraptured when studying “Moby Dick; ” I recall it more as required reading. However, more recently, someone introduced me to Sena Jeter Naslund’s historic fiction called “Ahab’s wife – Or, The Star-Gazer.” While she uses the Ahab story as a foundation, it is merely a springboard for what has turned out being one of my favorite reads … and it was her words that echoed in my head as I sat in the chapel: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Her well-crafted words truly set the stage for my experience in this quaint corner of a city once teeming with Quakers, runaway slaves, and purveyors of the China trade.

In touring the Whaling Museum, I learned of words that have long since slipped from common usage: “scrimshaw busks” (the ivory corset stays that a sailor would laboriously craft but could only “properly” give to a wife or close family member because of their “private” nature)… “fo’c’sle” – adapted from “forecastle,” the unbearably dark, stifling “dorm room” where sailors bunked – and “krill,” that shrimp-like critter which whales still eat but which I had completely forgotten since my high school biology class. Wouldn’t that make a great name for a rock band? Busk Krill – playing at the roadhouse Saturday night.

History has a way with words which often resonate most dramatically in the oral tradition. A few years ago, we heard a docent at the Kit Carson house in Taos, New Mexico, tell the story of Carson and his young wife, Josefa, who were often separated by distance, and of his anguish at the inability to reach her in time before she died from complications of childbirth.  Recounted under the hand-hewn beams and low adobe ceiling of their sitting room, the words came alive.

So what makes words cause the hair on your arms to stand up? I think the power rests in their ability to unlock the imagination, to rekindle a repressed memory, to trigger some genetic coding. For example, I can’t hear the words “paraffin wax” without thinking of berry picking and making jam as a child. Even then, the phrase seemed “old” and intriguing. After hours in the sun, we’d come home sticky and sweet, covered with fiber from dry black raspberry blossoms… fingers stained blue from contact. Sometimes mosquito bites and poison ivy were also part of the prize.

We’d crank up a big, dented aluminum pot filled with our bounty and boil it down, adding pectin and sugar, and pouring the purple elixir into still-hot canning jars. We’d top them off with pools of melted wax which would harden magically even on a hot summer’s night. There was something about that ritual — the perfume of the berried air, the chemical smell of wax — that conjured up kitchens of long ago, gingham aprons, and pantries abundant in sparse winter months.

Writers who can draw from lost language will have a vault of fresh material, so don’t hesitate to pick up that yellowed book in the library to  find some vintage words. Troll your local antique store to learn the names of items that are no longer made. Old, authentic words can lend credibility to that dark mystery, western saga, or personal diary for a character from the past.

Faro anyone?

A Week of Powerful Words

People who say no one reads anymore are overstating the trend toward alternate means of communication, because clearly words played heavily in the headlines this week.

As a result of a Rolling Stone interview by Michael Hastings, General Stanley McChrystal is out of a job. The former Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan apparently forgot that a reporter never stops doing his. The words he shared with Hastings, even if only casually, were captured, documented, and propagated – and now will live on indefinitely.

Having spent most of my career in the newspaper business (though not on the editorial side), I’ve always been puzzled and amazed at how people will spill their guts when simply asked a few questions. I’m not sure if it’s a sense of self importance, a desire to be polite, a fear of saying “no,” or just the chance to be heard, but down come the walls of privacy and out fall their innermost secrets.

This blog isn’t about whether McChrystal’s comments were on target or inappropriate, but rather, the power of those words – as an unauthorized statement, as a political slam, as a matter of opinion, and simply as great reading material to drive circulation for an industry that sorely needs it. These words will ripple out to spark discussion, prompt investigation, foster analysis, and inspire subsequent rounds of reporting across multiple media channels.

It’s interesting to note that this incident is apparently so volatile that Commenting was turned off on this YouTube video. To me this means that those written words and spoken words would generate so many comments (subsequent words), that they’d launch a firestorm of feedback. Even more interesting, in this video Hastings notes that Obama “does not use words like ‘victory’ and ‘win’ which the military loves.” This makes me wonder if just a sprinkling of those forceful words could help change the presidential persona.

To balance the brouhaha around McChrystal and his words … as I ponder whether freedom of speech should be forfeited when a position of import is accepted … I encountered a wonderful phrase by one of my favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw. In that last publication he says, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”

While his context relates to the premise for his book, I can easily apply that perspective to the frenzy at hand. I’m guessing that McChrystal did not utter his words to persuade but to air frustrations that were in his own head. Hastings knew those words would engage readers and as any good journalist should, he seized the moment. He saw a story and nailed it.

This is a perfect example where words are so powerful they self-perpetuate on newscasts, around dinner tables, and in water-cooler conversations. With that in mind, this is a good time for writers to brush up on the guidelines about defamatory language. Remember, in most basic terms, slander is spoken and libel is written – yet both can put you at the end of a lawsuit. So take precautions and don’t let personal bias or eagerness interfere with accuracy: checks facts, get well-balanced viewpoints, secure signed releases on quotes, attribute correctly, use reliable sources, and  identify Opinion as such.

But clearly as the former Commander has learned, even under the protection of “Opinion,” words are potent and should not be offered (or taken) lightly.

Inanimate Objects Don’t Make Decisions — or How to Curtail Careless Business Writing

I just read a great article by Jason Fried in the May issue of Inc. magazine entitled, “What’s Your Point?” In it he bemoans, “Nearly every company relies on the written word to woo customers. So why is most business writing so numbingly banal?’’

To that I would add, “And why is so much business writing just plain careless?”

Case in point: I’ve worked for clients who deal with magazines, schools, townships, and corporations. I try to be careful in writing, “Publishers can choose between x and y,” “Educators who sign up early will receive a discount,” “Residents who vote for this override will ensure funding,” and “Decision makers are encouraged to participate in the program.”

Maybe that’s why it’s so infuriating to receive edits that say, “Magazines can choose,” “Schools can sign up,” “Towns can vote,” and “Corporations are encouraged.” Do you see what’s happening here? Of course I know what my clients mean, but they are bestowing human qualities on inanimate objects. Fact is, I’ve never seen a magazine jump off the table to choose anything, a school to hold a pen, an entire town – sidewalks, trees, and all—to belly up to a ballot box, nor have I seen a corporate building lift off its foundation to participate.

Careless writing makes great fodder for programming like Jay Leno’s Headlines where unfortunate typos, exotic names, and poor word selection can offer a good chuckle. Of course I’m of the mind that whenever a clever double-entendre is used in a headline, it’s not an ignorant mistake. I’m convinced those headline writers are yukking it up in the back room, taking bets of whether they can get it past the editor. But I digress.

Nouns aren’t the only victim. Consider adjectives and adverbs.

We just had a good laugh in our family over a mailer that arrived saying a certain company had “lots of raving fans.” As if on cue, we all started exhibiting signs of madness. The better phrase might have been, “Customers of this company offer rave reviews.” Yes, there is a difference between foaming at the mouth and demonstrating an enthusiastic response.

One of my favorite examples is the Want Ad for “toddler teachers.” Of course we know the objective is to hire individuals who educate toddlers, but all I can imagine are very small teachers, slightly wobbly on their feet, wearing diapers and holding Sippy Cups.

In the business arena, being more careful with language can yield better results by including specifics that add value. So rather than end your letter with, “We’ll follow up next week,” a stronger phrase would be, “Joe Smith, our Business Development Director, will call you on Monday or will e-mail you the presentation after the conference” – both of which provide a name, title, timeline, and action. That phrasing communicates more completely with the prospect and gives him/her a heads up about what to expect.

Try this exercise to replace the inanimate object with a “living” word.

  • Hospitals strike over wages.
  • Farms milk their cows in the afternoon.
  • These cars guarantee good mileage.
  • Websites want you to check the boxes.
  • Books expect to be read cover to cover.

Stymied? Try “hospital workers,” “farmers,” “car dealers,” “web advertisers,” and “authors.”

Maybe we impose human characteristics on inanimate objects because we’re fond of them or because we want to personalize the experience. It’s a curious trend that has little to do with intelligence – or as some might say – “colleges expect you to know this stuff when you graduate, even though they rarely teach it.” Gosh, if only they had employed professors!