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Thursday Thoughts on Word Choice in Poetry

9:12 a.m. — Atlanta

Goodday! Today’s thought is brought to you by ViV and Paula. They were having a discussion on the difference between the way the English define a word, and the way an American might. As the definitions of a particular word are opposite, the question arises, what’s a writer to do?

Word choice is probably the most important of all the choices a writer must make and I would say that is especially so for poetry, because it is so condensed. In times before the Internet, most writers knew the audience for whom they were writing and chose their words accordingly, both to convey the poem’s truth and to make the truth accessible. But now? A poet’s intended audience and actual audience are two different animals.

I am going to reproduce for you the conversation between Paula and ViV and what I would like is for everyone to chime in with their thoughts and experiences.

ViV:

Paula, I have to ask this – I have so often wanted to ask on blogs – if there is a difference in meaning between American and English interpretation of the word ‘quite’ when used as an adverb? In English English, to say something is quite good is to damn it with faint praise; to say I am quite pleased, means that I am mildly interested. But I have a sneaking feeling that ‘quite’ to an American means ‘absolutely, or superlatively. Am I wrong?

Paula:

“Quite.” Yes…generally I think of it as “extremely.” I looked it up just now at Dictionary.com and found this entry:

1. completely, wholly, or entirely: quite the reverse; not quite finished.
2. actually, really, or truly: quite a sudden change.
3. to a considerable extent or degree: quite small; quite objectionable.

ViV:

What a can of worms I have opened!

I looked in my Chambers dictionary, which gave roughly the same definition as yours. But I was unconvinced, and looked elsewhere, to the Word dictionary of synonyms, which was enlightening in the extreme, giving these two interpretations:

1.    fairly, rather, pretty (in the sense of fairly rather than good looking), moderately, relatively, reasonably, somewhat, to a certain extent; extremely (antonym)
2.    very, completely, entirely, totally, utterly, absolutely, extremely, fully, wholly, slightly (antonym)
The same word – depending on context –can be diametrically opposed! Naturally, I was aware of the “very” definition, as in “He is quite cured of his illness” = totally; though colloquially “fairly” is far more common in British English – so to say someone is quite pretty means that they are not actually ugly!

Margo joins:

I loved reading the conversation in these emails and, having gone to a British school up through fourth form, have the same definition of ‘quite’ as ViV, so was fascinated to read your take, Paula. To me, as with ViV, ‘quite’ damns with faint praise: ‘She’s quite pretty’. It’s like saying she has a wonderful personality. Everyone knows she’s not anything to look at particularly.

ViV:

Faux amis can be a cause of embarrassment if not downright offence! I know many French/English ones – eg exposition in French translates as exhibition in English. Exhibition in French translates as to the action of exposing oneself, or flashing in colloquial English. Miserable in English means sad, down in the dumps. In French it is used for a state of extreme poverty. But my knowledge of American usage is insufficient to think of examples off the top of my head.

Paula’s suggestion of adding differences in accents is a good one. The many different accents in the United Kingdom, particularly in vowel sounds, can make a critical difference to the way rhymes are heard in different places. Tillybud had some examples, being a Northerner, where I and other Southerners were mystified.

I think that once the topic is launched, international blogger poets will be quick to find examples.

Me:

Back to my narrative. You will all have noticed that not just word choice from the point of view of meaning needs to be considered, but how the word sounds, from the point of view of both aural and pace, has been added. So, all of you international writers, what are your thoughts?

I will see you tomorrow for the usual roundup of prompts; I may or may not see you next week, depending on computer access in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. If you don’t see me Tuesday, then plan on the following week. Either way the Tuesday exercise will be an open prompt.

Happy writing and thinking!

 
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Posted by on 08/09/2011 in poetry, writing

 

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