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What's in A Name?

While I was looking into Garnets and Granite it was interesting to think about the many colours of rocks and gemstones and how the image a word conjures in the mind’s eye is often not really representative of the thing denotes. This image will vary from person to person depending on their experience. So granite can be pink like Enchanted Rock or grey like the granite with which Aberdeen was built, or mostly white or mostly black. Yet each of us will have our own image when we hear the word granite. Perhaps a monument, a kitchen countertop, a massive rock formation, lumps of stone destined to become curling stones on a Scottish island.

Besides the  image, the word may have a meaning beyond that image, a meaning which conveys something more nuanced or emotional. Does “a stone monument” have a different connotation than a “granite monument”? I guess it depends on the reader, whether their experience  or knowledge of granite imbues the word with something more, or on the writer or speaker. When describing an obstacle to a character in a story, does it matter if they must scale a granite wall or any other type of wall? Does a granite angel on a gravestone in our story tell us something different from a marble commemoration? Maybe, maybe not.

Part of the joy of playing with language, at least for me,  is exploring how to express a thought or describe a scenario clearly while (hopefully!) enriching the sentences by choosing words to reinforce what I am trying to say. I succeed better with the word choices than the clarity, I suspect!

An exercise which is useful for working the “word choice muscles” is to take a piece of writing which creates and atmosphere and to change some words to see how it then reads… My teacher, Miss Davidson, giving this exercise to our class when I was about nine or ten, and I still remember it! The passage she chose was from “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper (if you haven’t read that series of children’s books, it’s worth finding them!). The scene describes The Black Rider on a Black Horse in a snowy, cold midwinter landscape, grey skies, there are black rooks wheeling in the trees, a lonely lane, quietness. By the end of the lesson, with all our suggestions, the scene was completely altered. A yellow labrador on a sunny, sandy beach, the waves rolling in, people in colourful bathing suits splashing and playing volleyball, blue skies, sea gulls stealing picnics and being chased away. Kids laughing and shouting. Warm sand between the toes, delicious smells from food vendors. I wish I still had the final version we copied out, but I remember the process. The two passages tracked exactly - we changed adjectives and nouns (Black Horse, Yellow Lab, Warm soft sand, crunchy icy snow etc), but kept the sentences and structure exactly. The results were so profoundly contrasting that it stays with me still. When we describe something we start by being factual, yes. But we can convey so much more if we choose words to suit. Whether our readers take the same meaning as we intend from the words is a different question and I am inclined to think that in many instances it may not matter too much.

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Maybe we can do the exercise on the board at our next retreat meeting at your house.


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Great idea! We’ll be doing a couple of “warm up exercises “. Sorry for delay in response, been out of town again! Hopefully have some time to get my head in gear now 😀

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Your insight into the importance of choosing words deliberately to convey meaning and atmosphere is spot on. While clarity is essential, the artistry of language lies in its ability to evoke sensations and emotions beyond mere description.

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That would be a very interesting exercise for one of our meetings. Let's say we take a small passage on a board and go around with everyone giving one change suggestion and then read the final revised product.

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