Confronted with the beastly verbal lovemaking of hunky firefighter Chris, Roxanne, the title character in Steve Martin’s 1987 film, demands, “Why did you say those things?”
Charlie, the man with the golden tongue who truly loves her, cues Chris from behind the bushes: “Tell her you were afraid of words,” and dull-witted Chris—mishearing—blurts out, “Because I was afraid of worms, Roxanne. Worms!”
Ah, Cyrano! The lover ashamed. The man with the great gift of words but without the courage to employ them with the woman he adores. Not because he is not brave, strong, dashing, or immeasurably talented. No. This lover hides his love behind the handsome face of another because of his own monstrous nose. Thus his words, adoration bound in poetry, find their fond expression upon another man’s tongue.
Ask any writer to list what she loves about writing, and I’ll bet most will include words on that list — playing with words, shaping words to serve their characters, the worlds they build on paper — placing words in the mouths of others because it’s just so much darn fun. I write romance because I am thoroughly addicted to love stories. But spinning those tales offers me an extra added bonus.
Unlike Charlie at the moment he speaks the truth of his love to Roxanne through the medium of Chris, I’m not particularly afraid of words. Rather, I respect them. I’ve always thought that the more words we know, the more we can say, the more subtleties of life we can express, and the more color we can bring to our prose and poetry and everything in between.
Words give me such pleasure. Discovering new words, learning the expansive dimensions of old ones I thought I’d known, and basking in the comfort of oft-employed old friends—words are simply very good.
NOTE: Like Rupert Giles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s tireless Watcher who is always researching something), I love looking stuff up. Words are no exception. My favorite reference work is the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. For a writer of historical fiction, this resource is more genie-in-a-bottle than mere tool. It is pure magic.
An example of the adventure that can be had with a dictionary:
The Wikipedia page on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac” notes that the play “is responsible for introducing the word ‘panache’ into the English language.” Aha! I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way; I know that Shakespeare supposedly introduced 1,700 words into English. I shout huzzah for playwrights!
Panache is a wonderful word, isn’t it? Alas, I am hamstrung, unable to allow my characters to speak it because my novels are set many decades before Rostand’s play was published.
But wait… Wikipedia sometimes get things wrong. Is it really true that I mayn’t use this wonderful word? My fingers fly over the keyboard, logging into my university library system then into the great cyber halls of the OED. I search…
Voila! The word pops onto my screen in luscious scarlet. I nearly swoon. I am, to the information displayed before me, like a kitten before a bowl of fresh milk.
I am breathless. 1546. The date on which this first appeared in English print is 1546. Fifteen forty-six. I am free to go about throwing “panache” into any and all of my characters’ mouths if I so desire!
Then my gaze drops to the definition.
1. a. A tuft or plume of feathers, esp. for a headdress or as a decoration for a helmet, hat, or cap.
This is most certainly not the panache I have in mind. It is a perfectly nice panache, and I will use it, for certain, some day. I scroll my attention down the page, my emotion subdued. There it is, in clean type:
Ah me! Ah well…
But then, I consider, just because English people used the word in this manner only beginning in the late nineteenth century doesn’t mean the French hadn’t already started using it in that manner earlier. And an educated English gentleman of the Regency era, likewise a lady, often knew French. He or she might borrow the word, so-used… Perhaps…?
I leap from my chair and scamper off to my husband’s office in search of his Larousse. (The OED is not the only wonderful dictionary in the world, after all, and the French have always been word hounds.) The looking-stuff-up begins afresh. If I find the word used in the manner I like in French early enough… If… If… ???
It is probably too much of a stretch. I’m unlikely to find what I wish… with this word at least. Nevertheless, my joy is undimmed. After all, my play with words is all fun. All adventure. And all in the service of love.
I discovered a wonderful word on twitter the other day, in the category of words that had fallen out of usage: mitescent (adj.) – growing mild. I’ll admit this may be a tough one for me to include in a book. (My heroes and heroines are wont to grow less mild with each other as my books progress, after all.) I will shout a hearty huzzah! today for any of you lovelies who can use mitescent in a sentence.