THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE OFFERS WRITERS A CORNUCOPIA OF OPTIONS
JAMES J. KILPATRICK, Universal Press Syndicate
The writing art is like every other form of art: Its essence lies in making choices. The painter worries about which color, the musician about which note, the bartender about which gin goes with which vermouth. These are difficult choices, especially for the martini, but someone has to make them.
For the writer, making choices is exceptionally difficult. So many words! So many shades of meaning! We constantly are faced with choices - between one word and its next-door neighbor, between an active verb and its passive cousin, between a noun that's fittin' and a noun that ain't.
These observations are prompted by a letter from Caroline in Seattle. She had successfully doubled a six-spade contract at her bridge club. In a moment of unladylike triumph, having put her opponents down by two, she had exalted their defeat: "You could wriggle out of it!" Driving home, she was struck by a mortifying thought: "Should I have said `wiggle out' instead of `wriggle out'?"
This is a question of formidable magnitude. It has arisen before in these precincts, though not for several years, and demands careful explication. When do we wiggle? Or wriggle? The sages of Merriam-Webster offer little assistance. They define "to wiggle" in part as "to wriggle," and vice versa, i.e., they also define to wriggle as to wiggle. Other dictionaries are equally definitive. The thesauri of Rodale and Roget offer several unsatisfactory options, e.g., to squirm, writhe, shimmy, twist, snake, slink, shake, bump and grind.
The choice lies, where it often lies, in a penumbra of connotation: Which verb more accurately described the fix in which South found herself? Her partner clearly had mixed up her spades and clubs. Defeat could not be avoided. Given these circumstances, it seems to me, she could not wriggle out of the approaching calamity. It's a close call, but to wriggle will always be a twist squirmier than merely to wiggle.
Writers are a blessed lot - English-speaking writers, that is. We are heirs to an unbelievable patrimony. In this regard, sportswriters have all the fun. As I write, the Super Bowl approaches. If the outcome is close, one team or the other will simply defeat, subdue, humble, master, dominate, overcome, outscore or vanquish its foe. If the score is more lopsided, the writer has a wider choice. Rodale offers alternatives that begin with "conquer," and move on through "overthrow" and "overwhelm." Soon we escalate: The winning team clobbers, crushes, smashes, thrashes and tramples upon. It mops up. It wipes out. It trims, trounces, skunks, whips, drubs and routs. It quells, quenches and quashes. It pulverizes the opposition.
Making close choices is a difficult task in any field. For the serious writer, it's a happy misery. We wouldn't have it any other way.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist and author of books on language. Write him at 2555 Pennsylvania Ave., Apt. 902, Washington, DC 20037 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.