Humpty Dumpty Words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–nothing more or less.”–Lewis Carroll

Words matter.  Near the end of the last century, certain affairs of state turned on the meaning of the word “is.”  More recently, Presidential press conferences, congressional hearings and countless newspaper editorials have debated a plethora of words, and each speaker argues vigorously for the meaning he chooses to give them.  Why?  Because the words are aimed at ever-smaller slices of the electoral pie, and those who hear them parse diligently to either confirm the speaker in their particular orthodoxy, or mark him an apostate.  Humpty Dumpty words may be correct, but they aren’t true. 

Some writers also use Humpty Dumpty words, usually in the service of commerce or politics. Think political biographies distributed during election season, hagiographies to burnish the credentials of dead robber barons, and polemics extolling the virtues of one form of energy over another.  It’s all politics by another name.

Novelists, good ones, have the opposite problem.  Instead of doling out words with increments of meaning, the novelist must choose words that tell the greatest truth to the broadest possible audience.  It’s true that truth can be complicated, and a truth accepted unconditionally by everyone is hard to imagine, but the good writer tries anyway, and the closer he gets to the truth, the finer his writing becomes.  If he can also lend beauty and rhythm to his words, so much the better.

Politics is the art of saying one thing while meaning another.  Writing is the art of burrowing beneath the clichés and platitudes, and saying what is.

The Nun’s Dowry

I believe The Nun’s Dowry will finally be published this fall.  I am near the end of any useful self-editing, and will soon seek another opinion.  In the meantime, the publisher and I have been working on possible covers.  This is the current one.Nun's cover


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