One day in middle school, I stood at the locker with my best friend. I said something to her and she said, “Could you please speak English? I have no idea what that word you just used means.” This was the first of many times when my vocabulary became a topic of conversation. While I was mildly embarrassed, I was more confused. I had no idea where these words came from. I knew I used the word correctly. I loved reading, and collected words like others collected trinkets. I still love reading and writing words—a characteristic that slipped into my DNA courtesy of my paternal grandmother.
Thesaurus became a bit of a moniker (nickname) over the years. I loved it actually. I was proud of my vocabulary and the connection it made for me with my grandmother. Please be assured that I never used big words to show off or to sound uppity. That might have been a result, but it was never my intent. Words just intrigued me, entertained me, and helped me make sense of the world around me.
Today's word of the day, however, has got me thinking differently about word choice.
Its definition is a disastrous fire or conflict. The following sentence is the context in which I found the word in my presidential biography reading (page 196 of Jon Meacham's American Lion.) “Mrs. Eaton's affair, at the beginning, was but a spark, but what a conflagration it did cause,” she said.” The word nerd in me loves the sentence that follows for the word play Jon Meacham achieved. “Mrs. Smith had personal reasons to look forward to a bonfire.” See what he did? If you know what conflagration means as you read it the first time, then you can appreciate his reference to a bonfire.
It seems that these presidential biographers have humongous vocabularies and regularly employ them. As a writer, I'm aware of the importance of writing clearly for the reader's understanding. So here's where the conflagration (conflict) comes in for me. The sentence above would have been clearer if Mr. Meacham had simply written “what a conflict it did cause.” Then I wouldn't have needed to pull the dictionary off the shelf and hence slowed the progress of my reading. But on the flip side, I love using my dictionary and thesaurus.
Writer pauses to think of next thought, and this is what occurs to her:
Readers! It just dawned on me: HE didn't choose the word! His source did! See the “she said.” Whoever SHE was made the choice to use conflagration, not Mr. Meacham. But he had the genius to use bonfire in the next sentence!
Whew! He's off the hook for word choice—this time. And I'm going to keep loving and looking up and using big words. But I have a new appreciation for how my friend felt while we stood at our lockers. Moving forward, I'll give more consideration to my word choices.