If not “hello,” then what?

William-Adolphe Bougeureau, The Curtsy (1898)

Did you know that the word “hello” didn’t reach the English vernacular until the 1800’s?  It evolved from the word “hullo,” which you still occasionally hear in British movies.  So even though “hi” always sounds new-fangled and fun, it might prove to be  a better choice for a greeting when you’re writing historical fiction.  “Hi” actually predates “hello” by a couple of centuries.

Maybe using historically accurate language seems small and unimportant, but these things can color your entire piece.  For example, in Mary Robinette Kowal’s fantasy novel Shades of Milk and Honey, she deliberately uses old-fashioned spellings to root her characters more solidly in their Regency period setting.  It’s minor, but it’s also the kind of detail that makes her book very special.

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, understanding a word’s origins gives you a more solid grip on its connotations.  We’re lucky to write in a language that offers us so many words with similar meanings, but often quite different overtones.

Because of all our options, knowing how to choose the right words isn’t always easy.  We have to approach them carefully, studying them like a wood-worker studies his chisels and lathes.   Words, after all, are our tools.  Our products will only be as good as the tools we use–or know how to use.

You see, there are lot of things you can’t control in your writing career.  When you send out that epic love story about two doomed dwarves, you’ll have no way of knowing that an editor has received nine other stories about angst-ridden little people.  There’s no way to control what other people write or what is trendy or what is happening in the world, and all of that will influence whether your piece goes on to greatness or dies on the slush pile.

The only thing you can do for your pieces is to craft them as best you can.  Take every opportunity to learn more about words and grammar, because they are the tools and hardware of your writing.  Question your word choices.  Ask a friend with an awesome vocabulary to beta read for you.  I’ve seen great writers make silly mistakes, like using “zephyr” to talk about a fierce east wind or “proscribe” when they were talking about a required action.  Don’t let that happen to you.

The great news  is that there’s never been a time when it’s been easier to learn about writing well.  If we all share what we learn, we just might succeed at this business.

And when success knocks at your door, welcome it inside with a warm hello.

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  1. Christie
    22/10/2010 at 2:38 pm Permalink

    I *still* get a little red in the face when I remember that “zephyr” mistake! I am very lucky to have strong beta readers who are much smarter than I am, and who have a better toolbox. (Working on it!)

  2. Erika
    22/10/2010 at 3:25 pm Permalink

    There is much wisdom in what you say, Wendy. I will think about this carefully as I write/edit. Thanks!

  3. Sandra Wickham
    22/10/2010 at 10:00 pm Permalink

    Fantastic advice, thanks. (and I LOVE the painting!)

  4. Morgan Dempsey
    22/10/2010 at 10:42 pm Permalink

    So totally true! This is why they warn people against thesauruses 🙂 Use words you’re comfortable with. (Don’t have enough words? Read more books!)