April 16, 2015

The Power of the Right Word

Recently, a friend on Twitter paid me a high compliment. Here’s what Jon Jones wrote:
Few writers I know of have mastered the art of linguistic precision quite as deftly as @HaikuFictionDJU.

Of course I was extremely flattered by what Jon said. Choosing the right word for the right narrative effect is one of the fundamentals of haiku fiction. The more limited the scale of a story, the more you have to make every word matter. Flash fiction and especially drabbles focus one’s vocabulary intensely. I've had the good fortune to have some success in that field.

But Jon’s comment also caused me to reflect on why “linguistic precision” matters so much to me. How did I get to be this way? I realized that part of the reason stems from my surname.

It can be both a blessing and a curse to have such a unique surname as Uitvlugt. The name comes from two Dutch words meaning literally “out flight,” or more idiomatically, “subterfuge,” or even “excuse.” (“The dog ate my homework” is an uitvlugt.) The story my family tells is that the first person to use the surname was a deserter of the French Foreign Legion around the time of Napoleon. He “fled out” of the FFL to the Netherlands where he hid out under an assumed name. How’s that for a “subterfuge”?

My surname essentially means “pseudonym.” (More on Dutch surnames here...)

Jon helped me realize that I learned at a very early age that behind every word is a story. I’ve been interested etymologies for a long, long time. Jon helped me realize why. While the meanings of words change over time -- sometimes quite significantly -- words carry the weight of their meanings with them.

That’s true in an especially strong way with haiku. When Basho composes a haiku based on a certain season word, he’s very well aware of the centuries of history that lie behind that word in the history of Japanese poetry. Sometimes his poem depends directly on that history. Sometimes he subverts that history. The “hai” in his haiku depends on knowing the history of the words he uses. (More on the cultural significance of kigo in Basho's poetics here.)

This conscious use of words is definitely a feature of traditional haiku I try to carry over into what I call haiku fiction. Being more aware of the stories behind the words we use can add extra levels of meaning to the stories that we write. That’s what I try to do, sometimes on a subconscious level, but when I’m on my game, sometimes more deliberately. Weighty words, the right word at the right time, have more meaning.

Thank you, Jon Jones, for reminding me of that fact and for helping me realize why I do what I do!

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