By William Zinsser
July 8, 2011
That question came in the mail recently from an editor compiling a book in which various authors would name their favorite word and explain their reasons.
“I don’t have a favorite word like williwaw that I keep in a display case to moon over,” I wrote back. “Those words please me when I see (and hear) them, but unless they fill a precise need—oscillate, lapidary, filigree—I abstain, fearful of being sucked into the bog of academic prose where monsters like adumbrate and ineluctable lurk.”
My favorites are the hundreds of vivid replacements for words that are just too dull—too humdrum—to make writing come alive. Brazen, used instead of bold, not only catches the reader off guard with the fanciful z; its sound exactly conveys its meaning. A brazen scheme is more than merely bold; listen and you’ll hear a mountebank.
I write by ear, and sound is what leads me to what I’m rummaging for. In a column here last fall prompted by the death of the singalong host Mitch Miller, I explained that beneath his pop persona Miller was an erudite classical musician, not “a TV talk-show pantaloon.” Words with an oo sound—voodoo, boondoggle, hooligan—are irresistible in their playfulness. What a pleasure to throw pantaloon into my column and simultaneously define the genus talk-show host.
Surprise is the most refreshing commodity in nonfiction writing. Snoozing readers are startled awake to find that a writer is actually trying to entertain them. I strive for that moment. My style consists mainly of plain one-syllable and two-syllable words, but I’m always listening for the interloper from some distant corner of my education or my travels–not a word that’s trying to be “fancy,” but one that’s doing precision work.
Here are three sentences from my book Writing Places that particularly pleased me when they finally fell into place:
I was one of the first magazine writers to go to San Francisco in the winter of 1967 and bring back news of the “love hippies” who had descended on the Haight-Ashbury district, decked out in “ecstatic dress” and drugged out on LSD–flower children running away from their parents in the slumbering suburbs. I had no way of knowing I had climbed aboard a wave that would move at tsunami speed. By June it had washed a tide of ragged postulants to San Francisco, where they camped out for a “summer of love” that the city’s health and safety officials hope never to see the likes of again.
Beyond the small felicities of alliteration and metaphor I really like postulants. I don’t think I ever used it before, but it sprang from some recess of my brain when I needed a word to describe earnest young men and women seeking admission to a religious order. I like to find words from a specialized discipline—religion, medicine, music, carpentry—that I can put to use in a general context. In 2009, on the Sunday before the much-ballyhooed unveiling of the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets’ new Citi Field, I wrote in The New York Times:
I assume that the new stadiums will feature the latest advances in audio-visual assault. I stopped going to Mets games at Shea Stadium when my friend Dick Smolens and I could no longer hear each other talk between innings–such was the din of amplified music and blather from the giant screen in center field. But baseball is also a game of silences. Every half-inning it invites its parishioners to meditate on what they have just seen and to recall other players they once saw play.
Parishioners, also borrowed from religion’s vocabulary, specifically means a group of like-minded people assembled in a temple for a sacred ritual. Very satisfying. Here’s one last dip into the liturgical soup. Recalling several magazine editors who kept me busy with writing assignments, I wrote: “Pamela Fiori, editor of Town & Country, which for a century had catechized its readers on the manners of the Eastern establishment, found me useful as her house WASP.”
Medicine is particularly rich in terms begging to go out in public: all those words like sclerosis that doctors toss about so freely to inform us of some new clogging or erosion. Sclerotic is a perfect adjective for political punditry. Fifty years later I still remember a sentence by S. J. Perelman referring to the peristaltic prose of the columnist Max Lerner.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.