Friday, December 12, 2008

Wig wags thwart the cloaca, and more fun with words

I heard Roy Blount Jr. talking about his book "Alphabet Juice" this morning and it made me remember how much fun it is to have fun with words in stories.

He talked about the word "through," which just goes from the back of your mouth out the front with a little 'hhh' sound trailing out; and about "thwart," which gets caught up in your throat and "thwarts your throughness."

You have to figure he's having fun like that throughout the book. He talks a lot about the way words sound and the physical reasons they sound the way they do; the things words make your mouth do to get them out.

For me, it's a reminder to pay attention to not only how words themselves sound, but how people make them sound when they talk ... and to work to get that sound into our stories. People don't all sound the same. When you write aurally -- when you try to capture what makes your subject distinctive -- and do it successfully, your writing becomes fresh. What a treat for your reader.

I thought of some other times I've worked with writers and we got fun or funny or just plain interesting words into the paper.

When I was at the Carroll County Times, a reporter went to the 4H fair and came back with a story about poultry judges. She described how they did their work, including figuring out the sex of the bird. "They stick their hand up the bird's, you know, rear end ..."

"Cloaca!" I said. (Yep, the bird nerd in me coming out).

"The what?"

"Cloaca. You gotta use that word."

And she did.

A few years ago, Michelle Starr was reporting a significant enterprise piece about train-vs.-car accidents. She came across the descriptions of the types of warnings at intersections of train tracks and roads. One of them was "wig wags and bells." When I heard that, I went nuts. I told Michelle we had to get that in the story somehow; in fact, she could not write a story about train/car accidents without using "bells and wig wags." It was just too good.

As I recall, Michelle looked at me like I'd lost some brain function. And I'm thinking that my excitement made her wonder whether it was really that important to get that phrase in.

Well, it wasn't that important. But my point is: How could you resist? It's too fun, and it fit with the story she was telling.

And it made it into the story.

Anyone else have a good story about a funny word or phrase they worked into a story?