The Aliens ululated on the poop deck.
My father never finished high school. He served with the Navy in World War II, and came home and went directly into the workforce. He liked reading technical and how-to books, and built many things, including three houses using the instructions and directions. My mother bought encyclopedias, one volume at a time at the grocery store.
I’ve always liked words. My parents ensured that I always had dictionaries. I’m told that at age 3 I giggled over picture dictionaries. At the age of ten or so, while browsing the used book store, I found something called a thesaurus. The thesaurus was my downfall. Every time I found an unfamiliar word in the thesaurus, I would check the dictionary for its correct meaning. Thus, I fell in love with trying to find the right word for each use.
I discovered that I was not alone in wanting to find the right word. Samuel Clemmons was a well-known and feared Literary Critic. He railed against his contemporaries, “There is a right word to be used. Not an okay word, not a word used because it is considered politer. If you want to be understood, use the right word.” If you wonder if you are using the right word, check the sentence. If your verb or noun needs an adjective or an adverb, then you have a lazy word.
Which brings us back to the scene from a book by Stephen Donaldson.
- The Aliens ululated on the poop deck. Donaldson, in six words, planted a rich tableau of cultural behavior and set the historical period. How?
- First, somehow we are dealing with aliens. Are these the gray skinned bug-eyed creatures of speculative fiction, alien residents in a country, or immigrants?
- Second, they are on the poop deck. Now, what do you think is a poop deck? The poop deck is the highest deck of a sailing ship. Officers overlooked both the sea and the crew. Did the aliens pick the poop deck to be higher for their ululation? Also, this means that either the officers lent them the space, or that they were important enough to claim it for the period of the ululation.
- So, what were they doing on the poop deck? What do we have? Some low-lifes doing nasty things on a floor? They were ululating. Ululating is a form of expression, an undulating cry or shout. Therefore, they were either worshiping, crying, or expressing anger.
In six words, Donaldson painted a picture of a culture with long range ocean going sailing ships, of passengers who aren’t the same culture or possibly even species as the crew, and that they conducted ceremonial acts. They also have the ability to use the command area for their ceremonies, instead of being forced into the bilge.
Look at what happened. I took four paragraphs to describe what took Donaldson six words.
The right word is critical. Using a nonprecise word to not offend only leads to longer explanations, and burying your meaning in layers of confusion.
One of the joys of writing the #Matryoschka Heritage novels is finding the exact word for the situation, motive, and character. Some words arrive full throttle, such as affect and effect, and take over. They both can be nouns or verbs, to the confusion of many a wannabe grammar Nazi and at least three grammar programs I’ve paid to use.words don't mean what you want them to mean. Get a dictionary. Click To Tweet
Some words are simply fun, with nearly no use. One of my favorites is niggardly. I may have used it in actual conversation three times in my life.
The first time was when I was a Union shop steward at Boeing. I may have been elected to the Union Council by then, but memory doesn’t allow for such fine distinctions. Anyway, Boeing had had a banner year, with both major commercial and government wins in previous years which were paying off in major declared profits. The employees were excited for the company, this being when employees still identified with the employer. Also, and not to be discounted, high profits would lead to high salary increases in the next year’s cycle.
This was about the time when Boeing initiated ‘industry norms.’ Translated to common English, they paid a consulting firm to secretly (yes secretly) poll all competitors, then calculate how much lower salaries could be and still not lose a critical mass of talent. That year salary increases were the worst in years. Being young, and full of myself, I made public at-work noises about the ‘niggardly’ attitude of Boeing Executive management over those who made the profits. Pure Marx. The result was that I beat a hasty transfer to a different division.
From this, you would think I would become more liberal, and a staunch Unionist. Remember that I was elected to the Union Council? That experience tarnished my illusions about the virtuous union chiefs vs. the greedy owners. To get to the point, I left Boeing with a firm, and never shaken, opinion the Unions, like Owners, are the to-be-tolerated sides of the same coin that makes Capitalism work.Unions, like Owners, are the to-be-tolerated sides of the same coin that makes Capitalism work Click To Tweet
Yep, I used the word ‘niggardly.’ Regardless of what too many people think, niggardly is about an attitude, not race. It predates any word that may be phonemically similar by hundreds of years. Of course, I could have used a less precise word, say parsimonious. But then the same people would have thought I was making an anti-Catholic smear.
Back then, we weren’t over run by people who spent their time looking for ways to brand others, in communal Shaming exercises. How many people you see online who can’t be happy without their daily ‘I’m offended” fix. How many of those will ASSUME the worst possible interpretation, even if it exposes their ignorance?
The essential point is. Words mean what they mean. They don’t mean what you lazily assume that they mean.
To loosen this up, I would like to offer another example of precise word use. In 2005, I was the proud new owner of a Supercharged 1963 Avanti. I took Baby to the fanciest oil and lube shop I could find in Olympia, Wa. Nothing too good for it. I asked them to be extra attentive to the zerks as I had no history on how the previous owner lubed the undercarriage. Dead stares. Finally, I had to crawl under the Avanti and point out the zerks. As a helpful gesture, I pointed out other zerks in the garage. (pssst. a picture is at the top.)
To finish up, I’m sharing something on zerks from an abandoned electronic bulletin board.
Are all Zerks the same?
there are Democrat zerks and Republican zerks.
They all leak and won’t hold anything under pressure.
They all get slimy, and dirt sticks to them.
But at election time, they get wiped off and look good as new.
Except they still don’t work any better.
Best to replace them every four years with new zerks.
I know that in our world thumbs are the most active part of the human body. Mental laziness is placed on a pedestal. Don’t do that. Get a dictionary, and remember that your computer will look up words for you.