The Right Word & the Almost-Right Word: on Etymology.

Mark Twain said:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” 

A friend of mine was presenting to a bunch of corporate types this week. An English-major turned lawyer, he was excited to impress upon them the etymological definitions of the words ‘Client’ and ‘Customer’—words that are often used interchangeably but have distinct, if subtle, differences that would provide, he hoped, an interesting framework with which to view their business relationships.

“Ooooh,” I said as he told me about it later.

“Yeah,” he said. “Unfortunately, you expressed about a million times more interest in your one oooh than a whole room of these people could muster between them.”

It’s true. Us origins-of-words-lovers are a rare, quare breed.

And, to be just a little bit haughty of a Sunday, I think the best readers and writers are as in love with words in and of themselves as they are with sentences of them strung together. I didn’t pay too much attention to etymology until a few years ago and think it’s no coincidence that my reading and writing have evolved and deepened during that time.

There is a lot about the writing process that fills me with anxiety and uncertainty. When Im feeling overwhelmed by the big picture, I tend to hone in and absorb myself in the small particulars, taking out my thesaurus and etymological dictionary, deliberating between this word and another, almost but not-quite the same in meaning.

You could call it a form of procrastination, yes. It’s certainly not a process that results in reams of paper at the end of the hours. Sometimes I laugh and wonder if anyone reading would even notice the difference.

I think, though, that’s partly the anxiety that I’m trying to alleviate. When I wonder if anyone reading would notice, my next thought turns to whether anyone will ever read what I write at all…and…well…. Well, I cannot say for certain that they will: that they will read, or that they will notice, let alone that they will care. So I have to turn away from that, from all the future possibles and what-ifs, and do only what brings me pleasure in the moment to moment. I notice the difference. I care.

I get a little giddy about it sometimes.

I send my yoga-friends essays about yoga, like this one by William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books. They get all excited about the actual practice-of-yoga parts, and I get all excited about the part that traces the linguistic history of the word:

The Sanskrit word yoga means “union” and is etymologically linked to the English word “yoke.” Its earliest occurrence in the Rig Veda, which dates from the second millennium BCE when both the Pyramids and Stonehenge were still in use, links the word to the rig with which war chariots were yoked to horses; by the early centuries AD the same word is being used to convey the idea of the body and the senses being yoked and reined in so as to move toward the Absolute.

See, to me, the word Yoga still means something oppressive and burdensome—a yoke—and I will use this ancient definition to justify not getting into it again this year.

And, today, I noticed an article in The Harvard Crimson: Panelists Discuss The Role Of Prayer As A Placebo.

“Placebo is a terrible word,” said one of the panelists, Tanya Luhrmann, Stanford University Professor of Anthropology, and author of a book I read (and liked a lot) last year: When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Her work explores the cultivated practice and phenomenological experience of prayer.

Placebo is a terrible word because it implies something false, she says.

Luhrmann’s work does not attempt to verify the existence of God, only that the effects and experience of talking to and with God are very strong—and very real—for those who do believe and practice prayer habits. I can understand how she would be reluctant to use a word that signifies something fabricated and unreal.

But something struck me as I read the sentence, Placebo Is A Terrible Word.

There was something unnecessarily definitive about the assertion, though I’m sure she didn’t intend it that way. Still, on behalf of the word Placebo, a little part of me stood up and said, “Hey! Terrible? Really? That’s not nice.”

And I got a little bit giddy, and curious, and decided to check out what was so terrible about this placebo word.

Placebo: early 13c., name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, “I will please the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm cxiv:9), from Latin placebo “I shall please,” future indicative of placere “to please”. Medical sense is first recorded 1785, “a medicine given more to please than to benefit the patient.”

Seems like Placebo might not be as terrible a word as she thought. Even the later medical sense lends weight to the idea of prayer as having positive if not scientifically quantifiable benefits. Seems like it’s almost the perfect word in respect to her work and the topic under discussion, don’t ya think?!

Like I said, I can get a little haughty about etymology.

It just strikes me as a perfect example of how it can really enhance and open up an understanding of something. Yes, the contemporary meaning of placebo has certain connotations that she would wish to avoid. Yet, rather than belittle or dismiss her understanding of prayer, this deeper definition of the word placebo, in fact, adds depth, complexity, and historical continuity to the association of both words with one another.

Anyway. I dug it.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter or make a difference. Maybe the way looking-up words makes me feel is some kind of placebo effect: something done more to please than to benefit me, or anybody else. But I think it does. And I ask earnestly, and beg, that you might think so too. That is to say: I pray.


Sentences are orphaned words crossing the road, holding on tightly.

I’m reading a lot of sentences about sentences lately.

There’s Stanley Fish’s How To Write A Sentence and How To Read One.

And, yesterday, Verlyn Klinkenborg (author of Several Short Sentences About Writing) asked the deceptively simple question “Where Do Sentences Come From?”  I liked it. I like his admonishment to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place called the mind: patient in the presence of your own thoughts.

This is another answer to the question:

It comes precisely from that dark cavern but it stays fearful, quick and cautious. And, more importantly, it doesn’t seek to expound or demystify. It answers our call while remaining deliciously mysterious, sad and eerie.

A poem’s eight short lines taught me more than any book I’ve read this week. Sentences are orphaned words crossing the road, holding on tightly. They come from the Children’s Home and it’s our job to convey them carefully.