Some Thoughts On The Use Of Words, Gathered While Eating Bolinhos De Bacalhau


I was sitting last night (and early this morning) at a locally well-known restaurant in Rio de Janeiro named Cervantes (it’s in Copacabana, near Leme).  I was eating some of the best bolinhos de bacalhau I had ever had, and talking with a girl I’ve known for a while here.

As the flow of the conversation in Portuguese progressed, and as I added more red pepper sauce to my bolinhos, I began to think more about words, language, and their uses.  A few glasses of beer also helped.  I thought it might be useful to commit some of those thoughts here.

A good composition, whether delivered orally or written down, is composed of words, of course.  But style can be said to derive from two different things:  the individual words themselves, and also from their combination.  It is obvious then that the possession of a wide vocabulary is a necessary first step in the art of writing.  The more bricks and mortar the mason has, the more comprehensive he can build his structure.

When we speak of style, we often spend a lot of time on the combinations of words, but little time on the words themselves.  But every word is a thing in itself.  It has a shape, a feel, a flavor, color, a spin, a weight, and a history.  If you don’t believe me, open the Oxford English Dictionary.  Every single word is an ocean unto itself.  Every entry in the dictionary is a treatise, separate unto itself.

The right word or phrase in the right place can have a profound effect on the reader or listener.  The possession of a wide vocabulary can help us when we are searching for that precise word or term that conveys a thought in a way that will be remembered.  These types of words generally come from three sources:  rare or unusual words, new coinages, and words used in a metaphorical way.  

Older words can add dignity; new coinages help cement a new idea; and metaphors can entertain as well as enlighten.  Metaphors are effective because they help link the idea discussed with something already known to the reader or listener.  Another advantage of the metaphor is that it is terse:  it can convey the essence of an idea in a very compact form, and this is why it has been preferred by poets for ages.

The best guide to style here is to read what great writers have done, and allow their example to illuminate the way.  Metaphors must be chosen with care, and should not be obscure in their relation to the subject matter.  Obscure metaphors leave the reader groping about in the dark, searching for something that remains elusive.

In arranging words in sentences, the considerations should be (1) arrangement, and (2) rhythm and balance.  These two concepts are linked, but not exactly equivalent.  Arrangement focuses on placing words in such a way that there is no irritating clashing of consonants, or clumsy piling up of clauses.  Balance is the quality of having the sentence flow properly, so as not to appear broken, aimless, or truncated.

One of the most neglected aspects of speaking and writing seems to be what can be called amplification.  We write for a purpose:  that is, to express an idea.  But the idea remains of little use unless it is amplified in such a way as to be intelligible.  This “raising the idea” to a higher level is the heart of the idea of amplification.  The development of sentences in a piece of writing, and the flow of words in a speech, should aim to amplify the idea in the listener’s or reader’s mind.  An idea is a great thing, but an idea amplified for all to see and hear is even better.

The methods of amplification will be different, depending on one’s audience.  When one is addressing an audience that is educated or informed, it seems that appeals to achieving the good and avoiding the bad are useful.  Abstractions will fall on receptive ears.  When one is addressing an audience of uneducated people, references are usually made to specific pleasures, rewards, and avoiding shame or disgrace.

These were a few of my thoughts from last night, in no particular order.

Read More:  Quintilian’s Guidelines For Boys’ Reading