I had the incredible opportunity to meet the great British writer and intellectual John Fowles many years ago. We discussed our shared fascination with the English language and the writer’s search for the exact word — le mot juste, as the French express it (incidentally, the phrase is pronounced “luh moh ZHYST”). You don’t have to read very far into a Fowles novel to quickly recognize he possesses an expansive vocabulary — far beyond the average vocabulary of 50,000, common to a high-school/college educated speaker. So if you read Fowles, you will want a dictionary by your side; by the end of the novel, you will have learned several dozen fascinating and fancy words (some, from different languages, since Fowles readily draws from all the romance languages). No doubt, Gustave Flaubert, a very precise writer who introduced the term “le mot juste,” would be suitably impressed.
I love words. As proof of this profound lexicological affection, I own over a 1,500 word reference books (adding several each month; the more obscure, the more treasured). One of my favorite thesauri is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (now in its third edition) which happens to contain one of my favorite essays on choosing the exact word. The essay, titled “In Search of the Exact Word” is written by Richard Goodman, an assistant editor at Random House and teaches creative nonfiction writing. The essay is also found in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, published in 2008. With a bit of sleuthing in the Flaubert corpus, Goodman finds that Flaubert first introduced the term le mot juste in a letter to Sainte-Beuve, a critic, that can be found in a collection of his letters, La Correspondance de Flaubert; Etude Et Repertoire Critique (1968), edited by Charles Carlut. Goodman writes:
“I found Flaubert uses the expression just twice. He writes the critic Sainte-Beuve, “If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones,’it’s because ‘blue’ is le mot juste, believe me.” In the other instance, he says there has to be a rapport between le mot juste and le mot musical, that is, between the meaning and the music of a word…
Flaubert does say, though, that, “all talent for writing consists after all of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” He also says that, “perfection has everywhere the same characteristic: that’s precision, exactness.” He says he spends hours looking for a word. He expressed the struggle this way: “I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face.” And at another point, he writes a friend that he spent three days making two corrections and five days writing one page. Practically anything Flaubert says about writing and art is interesting, even if you disagree with him, though you are constantly reminded, as Henry James points out, that “he felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.”
Mark Twain was memorably good at seizing the exact word, too. Most humourists are… Their humour often depends on a choice of word; in fact the whole laugh can rest on a single word choice. When someone interviewed Evelyn Waugh for the Paris Review, they asked him about the process of creating a character. He said, “I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language.” If you read the books of the comic writers just with this idea in mind — S.J. Perelman, Thurber, Twain, Waugh, even Woody Allen — you’ll see how often the laugh comes from a single, well-chosen word placed exactly where it’s liable to generate the loudest laugh. Of course, Twain wrote perhaps the most famous line about this particular topic ever written, “The difference between any word and the ‘right’ word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
What is the exact word? I think what we usually mean by that is a word that not only conveys precisely what you, the writer, want to say, but also does it in an unforgettable way, a dramatic way, either because of its juxtaposition to its surrounding words or because it’s employed in a fresh way, or both. Something else, too, I think: when it surprises, it’s usually a surprise that doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It communicates resoundingly, because somewhere the reader understands the word well enough to appreciate its use.”
If you have an opportunity, you should read Goodman’s entire essay (it runs about seven full pages). It is full of wonderful and pithy insights that are sure to delight any logophile.
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For further reading: Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus compiled by Christine Lindberg
The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman