the aesthetics of words

My sister and I were having a discussion this morning on how much we both dislike the word “impactful.” Not too long ago, “impact” functioned as a noun: “What sort of impact on our sales will this new law have?” But my linguistic eye started twitching when noun jumped to verb: “This new law impacts our sales.” What’s wrong with “affect”? OK. Full disclosure. When I read back this sentence with “impact” as a verb, it doesn’t sound as weird as it used to. Or as eye-twitching.

For a nuanced read of “impactful,” check out Anne Curzan’s post, “What to Do About Impactful?” (Thanks to MJ for that resource.)

But here’s the thing. The word sounds ugly. Can anyone call that word beautiful? “Mellifluous”–that’s a beautiful word. “Recondite”–beautiful with all its sharp edges. “Azure” — you can hear the cello, I swear.

So do we tend to use the vocabulary that pleases our ear and avoid words that beat up our ear drum? Maybe not. Do we have our idiosyncratic list of words that produces a gag reflex? Absolutely. I’m not sure “impactful” will ever leave my list.


vocabulary muscles




No reason for those words. Well, yes, one moment. I just read “filament” in a reading about dandelions: “Yet is there anything more lovely than a sea of yellow dandelions by the side of the road in June? Or as remarkable in transformation as the filaments of the mature dandelion blowing on the wind?”

The word “filaments” in that last sentence gives me great pleasure because I see the wisp of translucent white float out into the air. One word–robust, full, evocative–the perfect word.

A robust vocabulary enlarges our world. We can reach farther and deeper when we pluck the words “nebula” or “sonar” from our vocabulary arsenal, our vocabulary toolbox, our vocabulary knapsack, our vocabulary sandbox. And you see what vocabulary accomplishes in that last sentence–do I view vocabulary as a weapon, a tool, a traveling companion, a plaything?

How do we develop a working robust vocabulary? By reading. A lot. Read what pleases you. Notice the words. Practice them. Make them yours.

But don’t fall prey to thesauritis. (This is not a real disease but a neologism I just created.) The thesaurus is a requisite item in a writer’s toolbox except when the writer hunts for and plucks a word without really getting to know that word. Here’s an example: “The hiker worried about the ominous and fuliginous sky.” (I take full responsibility for that sentence but have modeled it on an example in a published novel.) The word “fuliginous” means dark, dusky, obscure. But “fuliginous” is so far out of anyone’s ken that it sits in the sentence like a huge boulder. The word “ominous” already does the job, and it doesn’t bruise the reader’s eyes.

Go find your own vocabulary sandbox and enjoy those creative pings–those satisfied moments when you’ve discovered the perfect word.