Why does the English language…

… have no word for mot juste?**

In her thought-provoking and highly entertaining journal, Canadian author Holly Phillips has been talking this week about the frustration of having to choose when to employ the extent of your vocabulary. Whether it’s in fiction or conversation, the fact is that there are occasions when using exactly the right word for something will lose you readers or label you a smart arse. It’s kinda rubbish, but it’s just the way things are.

It’s even worse for me. In my day job as a technical writer I have to make everything I write as clear and simple as possible with the spectre of Plain English hovering constantly over my shoulder.

Personally, I hate readers who grumble about words they’ve not come across. Like Holly’s friend, I’ve always rather enjoyed coming across a new word in a book, taking the time to find out what it means and (usually) being pleasantly surprised at its aptness, but it seems we’re in the minority.

The author reason I enjoyed Holly’s journal this week was for her admission to enjoying the Nero Wolfe detective stories. I’ve never yet managed to happen upon a copy of one of the books, but a couple of years ago the BBC ran the excellent TV adaptation featuring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, and I thought they were fab. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the genre.

**(Or if it does – please enlighten me!)

10 thoughts on “Why does the English language…

  1. Of course, it’s all too easy to wave the size of your thesaurus around, and one of the lessons young writers hopefully learn as they mature is to use the *right* words, not the ones with the most syllables or the most exotic heritage. Eschew surplusage, as Mark Twain famously advised.

    A few mots justes per (short) piece shouldn’t cause much grumbling, depending on the tone of the overall.

    Let’s face it, some readers are grumblers, and as such are inherently noisier than those who are content with one’s vocabulary. Don’t mistake the squeaky wheels (or your sycophants’ noisy bootlicking for that matter) for the greater good.

    English has a word for mot juste — it’s mot juste! We have a great tradition of incorporating foreign words (sometimes involuntarily, as in the case of Norman French) as need be. It’s in the dictionary and everything! 😉

  2. “I’ve always rather enjoyed coming across a new word in a book, taking the time to find out what it means and (usually) being pleasantly surprised at its aptness”

    Me too.

    “no word for mot juste?” Pedantry alert.
    Neither has French.
    (Think about it.)

    As to the meat of the question how about appropriate word? correct word? apposite word? bang-on phrase? spot-on term? Or even the literal translation just (as in just so) word?

  3. Well, with the technical writing, I have no real choice of course. I’m writing for the general public and have to choose language that meets the largely non-dictionary toting market.

    With fiction I actually find it quite easy to leave out the poly-syllables, and that’s part of my style, I guess, but where I do sometimes run into trouble is in wanting to put in Scots words which are *absolutely* apt for the purpose, but which may leave some readers scratching their heads. Many Scots words are in the dictionary of course, but many more are not. Since they tend to be descriptive words though, guessing from context shouldn’t be a chore. It’s actually amazing – and heartening – the number of editors who don’t call me on the use of words like dreich, wersh and scunner, but sometimes I self censor, depending on the intended market.

    Re “mot juste” – aye, I was just using the question as a lazy hook into the post, but I was kinda loosely wondering why there’s not some sort of single word equivalent to “euonym”=”apt name” for “apt word”.

    Is there? Inquiring minds,etc!

  4. “It’s actually amazing – and heartening – the number of editors who don’t call me on the use of words like dreich, wersh and scunner”

    I got called on “outwith.”
    It’s so common in Scots English I hadn’t thought about it causing a problem.

  5. >It’s the very word.

    The very dab, even!

    >I got called on “outwith.” It’s so common in Scots English I hadn’t thought about it causing a problem.

    Absolutely, and it’s abloody great word as well!

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