I love understanding the roots of words, it colors them and gives layers of meaning when we use them. So, I’m signed up for the emailed words of the day from Dictionary.com, A.Word.A.Day with Anu Garg, and Visual Thesaurus.
For instance, consider the word iniquity (which was highlighted some time ago in an email from Visual Thesaurus). The root is the same as equity or equal. But with the opposing prefix “in,” the word has come to mean unequal, therefore wrong, therefore evil. At least that’s how the word has evolved and come down to us. So, if I use iniquity in a story, it would color the sense of wrongness with an underlying inequality.
What caught my attention in that email wasn’t just the root of iniquity, but its history. It was first used by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels.” That’s often the case, that an author’s pen will scribble a new word, simply because it grew out of his need for a specific meaning and rhythm within context. The author doesn’t invent language in a vacuum, but brings it forth, a hybrid of roots that blossom into something almost new, yet clearly ancient.
Language grows and changes with every generation. Not just with literary invention but through street jive, Internet slang. Often, a new word is “owned” by a certain clique, to say “I’m” on the inside; outsiders just don’t get what we mean, who we are. That, too, is ancient.
But language exists to communicate. So if new words and new meanings for old ones are to survive, they mustn’t obscure but reveal (even when their initial intent is to be exclusive). As language refreshes itself, it is telling to see which ones endure and which ones fall by the wayside.
Daniel used to say that I have poetic license 007 to kill the English language. I often struggle to find just the right word to convey the picture I have in my mind of a place I’ve invented or a character who is demanding to live. When I find that one perfect word, I am sometimes surprised when Daniel or another reader mentions that it is new, or a new use of an old word. What is more pleasing is when others begin to use it, too. I can’t know if my inventions will stand the test of time — if any of my phrases or words will linger beyond the here and now. I would like that. It would be the final proof of having created a true literary legacy. Of course, that’s the essential arrogance of writing. Hoping that what you have to say is something others will remember.