The Awful Fate of Words

“I listen to my words but they fall far below.”
Cat Stevens, The Wind

I’m looking for a word that may not exist.  “Beautiful” came easily but that word is generally used to describe something pulchritudinous and not necessarily splendid, marvelous or “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.”  A beautiful face, in all ways symmetrical; a beautiful day with mild winds and temps and just the right ratio of clouds to sky.  There is something so transient about that word.  A thing of beauty is only a joy forever only in your mind.  Faces sag with wear and tear and droughts eventually turn lush gardens into barren wastelands. No, beautiful was not the word I was looking for.

In case you’re wondering, it was this moving piece of writing that has me on a quest for the perfect word.  How often we respond to each other in comments with words such as beautiful when we mean to say either delightful, glorious, or splendid.  Or when a piece rips in a chasm in our hearts – fearless, unflinching, heart-rendering or audacious.  Yes, I like that word audacious.  How dare the writer take us to a place we may not have wanted to visit but once there, how we marvel at the truth he or she has revealed.  What is the word for that?

“Beauty is truth and truth beauty,
That’s all ye know on earth.”
 John Keats, On a Grecian Urn

I found one word that I liked for its meaning:  of great value, not to be wasted.  Your work is precious to me.  I shall not waste it.   But precious is a word that has come to mean dainty and frail through, as one linguist put it, “absorbing the negative elements” of sarcastic usage.  Many words in the English language have met similar fates.  For example, naughty used to mean “people having naught,” in other words, poor people.  Nice originally meant silly, ignorant or foolish and pretty meant crafty or skillful. 

Tolkien’s character, Gollum, ruined the word precious forever.

This brought me back to where I began: wordless.  So I emailed friends of mine who are wordsmiths.  One of them wrote back:

There’s a fine tradition of pairing words incongruously to subvert ideas and emotions. From Aeschylus (“wisdom through the awful grace of God”) to Anne Sexton (“the awful rowing toward God”). And Emily Dickinson did this sort of thing so often it’s all but impossible to pick simply one or two good examples.”

What struck me in his response was how the word “awful” is used in concert with words such as “grace” or “beauty” until I googled the original meaning of “awful.”  Derived from the word “awe,” at one time it was synonymous with awesome and meant reverential and respectful.

An awful sky

What do you do when you can’t seem to find the right word?

26 thoughts on “The Awful Fate of Words

  1. As language evolves, I tend to revel in the choices. sometimes I’ll say something like ‘in its literal sense’, but sometimes the words just fail.
    This was a thoughtful read, you definitely picked all the right words.

  2. Glad you got it all into a post. It’s such an interesting question. And, of course, the choices we make are so revealing. Revealing of what, makes all the difference.

    – Layton

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. I don’t consider myself a wordsmith or anything even remotely close, so I’m constantly struggling to find the right words to convey my message. This post reflects that struggle only because I lack sufficient tools in my toolbox.

    I did learn something from this post though. Although I did know about ‘awful’ and ‘precious’, naughty, pretty, and nice were new to me.

    1. I think the struggle is good because it forces us to consider new words or new word combinations. I’m no wordsmith myself but am lucky enough to know several people who are.

  4. You found all the words necessary. When I can’t find the right word to write, I think them all, think them hard, and project them to the source and then they hit when you least expect it and that’s when you need to flap the page back to read it all again. A well-deserved shout-out.

  5. Good question. Sometimes I do the best I can (in finding the right word), and leave it at that.
    Simetimes, though, the right word will pop into my head a few days later!
    See you.
    Neil S.

    1. I’m always impressed by writers who have a knack for always finding the right words. Certainly it’s not me – I keep running into old tired words!

  6. Great post, Jan… I have always thought the word beautiful is a bit overrated… unless we keep in mind Keats’ definition … which clearly gets along with Plato’s theory of Forms… for Plato, Beauty was related to Truth and Goodness…. hence, he Ethics and Aesthetics tended to be equivalent… 💛⭐️ That song by Cat Stevens is a little gem. I have always liked it… in fact I used to listen to it a lot while I was in Mendoza province, surrounded by sublime mountains… I remember it well. Love and best wishes to you

    1. Unfortunately beauty is related to things which are artificial and fleeting in our society – beauty products, beauty parlors, etc. And so it loses its truth. I love that little song as well.

  7. I keep a list of words that I particularly like. While writing when words fail me, which is more often than I’d care to admit, I go to that list. I’m a pragmatic creative, don’t you know! How’s that for an incongruous phrase? 😉

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