Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on Tangs: Why Word Choice Matters

Lately, I've been thinking about word choice a lot. It's only natural that I would think about word choice while I'm working, since one of the hardest parts of translation is deciding which words in your native language best express the ideas in the original text. However, this tendency to focus on individual words has also crept into my enjoyment of books in recent days.

A couple of days ago, I started reading a new novel that I'd heard about on the radio. After reading only a few pages of the prologue, I reached the words "the curved tangs of the scissors" and stopped. The tangs of the scissors? It was obvious from context what the writer was referring to, but the use of the word tangs distracted me. Despite the fact that I knew what the writer meant, I still stopped to look the word up in the dictionary since language fascinates me.

Clearly this little guy finds the use of tangs surpising too!
While I had guessed the definition of tangs correctly, I did find it curious that the writer had chosen such a word, and even went so far as to wonder whether the editor, or anyone else in the publishing process, might have ever stopped to consider that the use of the word could be distracting. However, I did also realize that I spend all day analyzing words, so perhaps it was just my mind focusing more on the words than on the story itself.

When I did eventually get back to reading, I got a few more pages into the book before reaching the point where a character "laved every inch of her skin". Again, the definition of laved was obvious from the context, but after the whole tangs conundrum, my mind wandered again. Why wouldn't they just say that the character "washed" or even "lathered" their skin? It certainly does sound more literary to say laved, perhaps due to the Latin roots it shares with the Spanish verb lavar and the French verb laver, both meaning "to wash", but it also pulled me out of the story.

I imagine that most other readers of this book probably won't stop to ponder the use of words like tangs, lave, and dehisces, the third unfamiliar word I came across while reading that night. However, my experience with this book does show that word choice is very important, and can influence how a reader understands, enjoys, and even feels about a story.

I'm still reading the book, and the story itself is fascinating, but sometimes I do still stop to wonder why the writer chose certain words. Did they choose these words to "elevate" their writing, or to show off their huge vocabulary, or do they simply love to use unusual words in their writing? I'm certainly not annoyed about their use of uncommon words; in fact, I find it quite fascinating. However, my experience reading this novel has been irreversibly changed, for better or worse, by the fact that I have been repeatedly distracted by word choice.

Have you recently read something that made you wonder about the writer's reasoning for their word choice? Let us know about it in the comments below.