The search for the perfect word can be an exercise in frustration. It can also be – cliché alert – a voyage of discovery.
But what voyage are you on, and who is the captive audience of fellow passengers you hope to inform, persuade and entertain? Are you a professional writer who needs a jog of the memory? An occasional scribbler who’s looking for a bit of subtlety and precision? A reviewer or blogger trying out new ways to blast a film, book or album, or praise it to the skies? Or just someone who knows there is the precise word out there for what she wants to say, but just can’t find it, or a way to find it?
These days everyone really is a critic. Thanks to the internet, opinions – many vociferous and completely sure of themselves – are everywhere. Blogs and the web in general have given a global voice to everyone who wants one. And because this power can’t be taken back – banning the bad, sad and slightly mad typists of the world from their laptops simply to keep the online noise level down – it makes more sense to encourage those who do write to write better. Even if better means encouraging one person to replace ‘great’ or ‘not great’ with any of the 5500 mostly adjectival synonyms or associated words that open this book. Rest assured that every effort has been taken to find the best available words: many have been trawled from thousands of articles and reviews from the world’s best writers and critics.
For if In a Word is aimed at anyone in particular, it’s critical writers: those who wish to say something meaningful with insight, precision and, perhaps, humour.
No one who hopes to push their prose beyond mediocrity wants to be like the ‘most respected’ art critic in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, who had a painful keenness to be modern and inventive, while saying nothing, badly.
Mr Ryder rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities ... By focusing the frankly traditional batter of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr Ryder has at last found himself.
If, on the other hand, you’re aiming to move the stars rather than bang a cracked drum for dancing bears, as Flaubert almost put it, you need the right tools. Tool No. 1 is the right vocabulary.
Of course, all the words in the world can’t give us knowledge or understanding. We may know every line of Casablanca but fail to grasp just why Ilsa gets on that plane, or even why the French are running the place.
A single book can’t fill that chasm – but In a Word is intended to point you in the right direction. In this regard, you can think of it as a cheat sheet or aide-mémoire of sorts for the galaxy of words you have in your head but can’t quite recall.
In a Word is not a replacement for a dictionary or thesaurus; in fact, you will need a dictionary if you don’t know the meaning of some of the undefined words here. But you are probably the sort of person who already owns a dictionary or two, a thesaurus or crossword reference book, and perhaps a half-dozen other language books. Rather than attempting to be comprehensive across the English lexicon, the intention is to be comprehensive in grouping useful words in a useful way.
Choices of subject, style and spelling err on the side of the Commonwealth tradition. Where definitions are given, the one most of use to a critical writer is often given first rather than the one that might appear initially in many dictionaries.
How to use
In a Word is grouped into four main sections: Vocabulary, Characterisation, Terminology and Reference.
It takes the form of a series of lists, some defined, as in a dictionary, and some instead grouped in synonyms or semantic associations, as in a thesaurus.
The first section, Vocabulary, opens with a Descriptive Thesaurus, gathering categories of praise, denunciation and more neutral description.
If you are seeking a word to describe something in a critical way, be it favourably, unfavourably or more neutrally, then the thesaurus should be your first stop. Although you will find nouns here, most of the words are adjectives. Yes, good writers should show rather than tell, and so avoid the weak or inaccurate noun or verb, but there is also nothing quite like the apposite adjective.
For example, if you want to describe someone or something as ‘competent’, a word that contains a multitude of connotations, you will find ‘adroit’, ‘adequate’, ‘assured’, ‘conventional’, ‘garden-variety’, ‘kosher’, ‘middling’, ‘passable’ and ‘workmanlike’. If it’s ‘not new’ you are looking for, there’s ‘antiquated’, ‘blasé’, ‘boilerplate’, ‘conventional’, ‘fogeyish’, ‘obsolete’, ‘schematic’ and ‘vintage’, and ‘assemblage’, ‘caricature’, ‘homage’, ‘platitude’ and ‘typecasting’.
Words within the rest of Vocabulary are divided among four main categories: Useful, Fancy, Plain and Colourful. If you are seeking a word that will give a bit of punch, a Colourful, Plain (short, monosyllabic, often Anglo-Saxon) or Foreign word could be your best bet. Colourful words are those that amuse and delight in their sound and connotation, including the likes of medical terms and tabloidese in Specialist Terms. They add – by means of onomatopoeia, or what wine makers might call mouthfeel – liveliness or a little joy to a sentence.
Plain words, by contrast, can help writers keep their prose from straying into the florid and the flabby.
The third section, Terminology, is devoted to critical writing. After defining the basics of language and criticism – such as argument and figures of speech – it offers lists of words that might be helpful in writing critically about a subject, or trying to figure out what to pay attention to, particularly if it’s art, sport or food. It lists words to aid the description of aspects of life outside human beings, such as weather and geography.
Reference, the fourth section, collects together facts you might be familiar with – US presidents, for example – and others you might not be, such as historical methods of punishment and ways of divining the future. It also lists films, directors, authors and other artists by decade and subject. If you are trying to remember which films featured teachers or trains, for instance, or which are the seminal works of an author, try here.
The Appendix contains word associations, including those relating to decades of the late 20th century, and those of other subjects such as religion, death and sex. It also lists websites full of language and useful facts.