Looking for the Best Word? Tip #04

Word cloud via tagul.com


For a short introduction to this series, please click this link.

These posts examine some similar, and dissimilar, words in an effort to suggest ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate or effective.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all those suggestions are true synonyms. Context is vital. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see whether they actually make sense is one way of determining whether they’re suitable. However, it’s not a foolproof method, so a good dictionary is vital.

I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. It sits in easy reach. However, I try to dig the best word from my overburdened memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word evades me, reside on my reference shelf, behind me.

So, to this week’s word:

Distress – Roget lists the following headers: pain, give pain, evil, ill-treat, fatigue, adversity, poverty, impress, suffering, worry, hurt. All the words are associated with the idea of ‘distress’, but not necessarily direct synonyms. Under ‘ill-treat’ a further 50 alternatives are suggested, both single words, and phrases, including both ‘scratch’ and ‘crucify’. How to decide which to choose?

There are two fairly distinct ideas here; one deals with suffering and the other looks at physically modifying objects.

Let’s look at the latter, first:

‘The dealer hammered and scratched the modern nondescript cabinet to distress the veneer and give it the look of old oak so he could sell it as an antique to the unwary.’

Employing a synonym from the basic list of alternatives here, you clearly can’t substitute ‘evil’, or ‘worry’, or the idea of ‘adversity’, ‘poverty’ or ‘suffering’ if this sentence is to make sense. So we always need to be conscious of context and not allow our inner poet to distort our meaning. Have a look at your thesaurus to see what alternatives you might choose here. Better, see if you can come up with one from your own memory.

Now let’s look at the broader meaning, dealing with suffering in one of its many forms.

‘He’s a townie who puts up with the shouts of drunks, the screams of distressed women, the whistling of fools and the constant clatter of traffic past his trendy pied à terre but is made suspicious by the noise of something falling over outside.’

This is a description of the narrator’s current lover, who is a city dweller staying at her very rural cottage. The ‘distressed’ women referred to here may be the victims of anything from teasing to serious assault. So, they may be in pain, worried, anxious, frightened, or any of a number of emotions relating to suffering. Such words could be substituted for ‘distressed’, but we then have to decide, as writers, whether we wish to convey a general or a specific idea, give an image of terror or simply leave it to the mind of the reader. The point of the sentence, placed within the narrative, is to contrast the sometimes threatening nature of city noises with the unusual but often benign sounds of the countryside. The sentence comes from a short comic story, which you can read in its entirety by clicking this link.

Let me know what you think; maybe give your own examples as a way of putting the suggestion into practice. I welcome comments, questions and observations. Please have your say using the ‘comments’ below.