Ticklish Words

I have a big vocabulary and I’m not shy about using the right word or phrase instead of a commonly used term. With many friends for whom English is a second language (and as a volunteer at an English as a second language program), I’m often explaining my word choices. This means I have to be able to justify lethargic over lazy, essential over basic, and peculiar over odd. Several of my multi-lingual friends have commented that they enjoy my eccentric (unusual, weird, abnormal) word choices, so with them I aim to please.

Why do I seek precision in word choices?

I think there’s a wondrous sensation that comes from using the right word. It’s as if some words are ticklish. They resonate, while other words just sit there filling a space in a sentence. The sounds of the right words make a difference, but it’s primarily the accuracy. It’s like a painter mixing the right color for the sky at twilight—and how often is that a standard blue?

Dialog presents an entirely different problem for writers. The vocabulary of the character directs the word choices. If you’re up for a strange game, listen to the words that your friends (family, colleagues, or acquaintances) use. The individual words reveal a great deal.

My friend the bartender notes specific geographic differences. Tablets versus pills, lift versus elevator, and bag versus sack, have distinct connections to places. She uses that kind of vocabulary to guess where patrons are from and has told me that it’s just as reliable as accents.

A request to find a toilet, bathroom, washroom, loo, restroom, ladies room/gents, or W.C. in a public place, either nails down the character’s origins or deflects with a subtle red herring. When I travel, I try to find out the local word before I find myself stumbling through a list of alternatives. It’s not that I’m trying to hide my New York/U.S.A. home, but using the right word is efficient. In the case of a fictional character, the precise/local word choice might help obscure a secret past, just as the wrong, but accurate and understandable, choice might help reveal that same secret.

NYC street & sky in October.

NYC street & sky in October.


  1. Diction is one of my favorite things! Especially so when writing poetry. Choosing just the right word can have such an impact when polishing a piece. One of my clients wrote about all the foreign exchange students she’d host over the years. One in particular found out relentless use of the word “stuff” rather funny. Too often we speak in such generalities.

    • Candy Korman

      Stuff is vague, so muddled and weak… And yet, when I talk about the STUFF that accumulated in my late parents’ apartment, it is the perfect word.

      It think that’s the key to the tickle a writer gets when the word fits into the puzzle with precision and elegance. When we abuse a word with over use, it loses its power (or beauty) and becomes blah. So, with the notable exception of the boxes piling up like a tower of Babel, stuff is not an interesting word.

      As a poet, your experience with the sounds of words heightens the tickle. I’ve found that poetry is very helpful when I’m working with English as a second language students. Reading The Raven and The Hunting of the Snark out loud with my student from Spain were highlights of the second semester. He bloomed when he started to hear himself grove on the rhymes and cadence of poetry. I’m looking forward to introducing my new Russian speaker to poetry in a few months. If you have any suggestions, I’m open to your ideas!

  2. I’m no poet, but I do love the /sound/ of the right word, even if I couldn’t tell you exactly why one word is better than another at that precise point. For example, I’ve often read sentences out loud, again and again, until I can decide between ‘start’ and ‘begin’. I think the word I end up choosing fits better with the rhythm of the sentence, which in turn, has to fit the mood of whatever I’m writing.
    In a weird sort of way, I think this is one reason I actually enjoy the editing process. I don’t see it as just fixing mistakes. To me, it’s a chance to add subtle layers to the meaning.

    • Candy Korman

      That’s what second drafts are made of!

      Yes, there’s something that tickles the writer and the reader when it’s the right choice. Sometimes it’s the unusual choice, but more often for me it is the elegant choice or the more active word that tickles. Mood is critical. Some words shade a meaning and make it darker and scarier. Other words speed the pace of storytelling. They are short words with edges that sound clipped and give the text an efficient attitude. Languid is NOT the same as relaxed or unhurried, but that’s how it’s defined. The sound, the mood, of the word is entirely different.

      As you say… “subtle layers to the meaning.”