Choosing the Right Words, and the Hilarious Embarrassment of Failing to do so

Apr 25, 2011

I think I've mentioned before that I'm short. Short enough that in elementary school I got called shrimp by the boys. Nothing ticked me off more than Cade and Shaun (yeah, I remember their names) calling me Shrimpy Shallee. So I'd chase them, determined to pound some sense into them. It was really too bad I never caught them.

At any rate, I eventually embraced my hobbity size. In fact, on a trip to Disneyland with the in-laws, I found a shirt in Tomorrowland. On the back was Yoda standing next to a "you must be this tall to ride this ride" sign. On the front, it read "Judge me by my size, do you?" I thought it was hilarious. It was a kids shirt, but I found one big enough to fit me.

Last year, we had another Disneyland trip with the in-laws, and I wore my shirt. When we stopped at a gas station, a guy started laughing when he saw the shirt.

"I need to get one of those for my girlfriend!"

I smiled. "Yeah, us short people should stick together!"

He gave me a confused look, and it wasn't until I got back to the car that I realized he thought my shirt meant something else. And really, who could blame him? I had "Judge me by my size, do you?" plastered across my chest.

I was mortally embarrassed, though now I can laugh about it. But it brings me to the actual point of this post-- words. And their meanings. As writers, words are our tools, and it's amazing to me what a difference a single word can make in my writing. Even now, I'm re-reading Devolutionaries on my Nook (I know-- AGAIN) and finding small things to tweak.

When you put a word into a sentence, it takes on meaning. If you switch that word out, even with a synonym, it can drastically change the whole context of a sentence. Mark Twain said it best: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Sometimes, the wrong words, or just words in the wrong context, can be funny. But to really hit your reader with that stroke of lightning genius, you need the exact right word. It's hard to say what that word might be, and how to find it. I know for me, I get this quiet inner nudge when something isn't working right. I'm training myself to pay attention to that, so that even in edits, I can go back and change my lightning bug to lightning.

So what about you, my friends? Any stories about the wrong words causing hilarity? How do you know what the right words are, and how do you know when to change the wrong ones?


Michelle Merrill said...

Oh Shallee, that's hilarious! And I think I know which two boys you're talking about. Not that I remember them teasing you AT ALL but I wouldn't doubt was elementary :)

And the whole shirt thing with the dude and his girlfriend...there are no words. That's so funny.

It is amazing how one word can change a sentence. Great post!

Jen said...

hehehe that is classic!

True story about using the right words. I use wrong words all the time! Yet I want them to work so much that I don't care how it ends up!

Reece said...

Sometimes I almost wish I couldn't tell that a word wasn't quite right... it would save me a lot of time and anguish. I can easily sit for half an hour trying to find one word. ONE. FREAKING. WORD. And problem is that I can't just move on and come back to it later (trust me, I've tried, but I keep obsessing over it). But when I finally manage to pluck exactly the right word of out the cosmos, I feel like I've conquered the world!

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I got called "shrimp" too! It was by friends, but still! I loved your story about the shirt. So funny. Thanks for the great post! :D

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

Great post! I've read many books (even published ones) where the wording is such that I have trouble understanding what the author meant.

If you want to see some hilarious wrong words, run a search for dangling modifiers. Here's a pretty good site for it:

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

This one's better:

David P. King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David P. King said...

Excellent post, Shallee. I have the problem of mixing words up as I say them. Must be the dyslexia in me. One time I actually said "I went bountain miking." It makes for some hilariously embarrassing moments.

As for words to use, have the same issue, that nagging or inability to move forward because something wasn't covered or the right word wasn't used. Find the problem and it's like unkinking a hose.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Shallee I LOVE this! LOL on the shirt. But you're right. Picking the right words is really the art (and the heart) of the whole thing. :D

Angie said...

That's too funny! I want one of those shirts, though. I am of a hobbity size myself, as you know. Finding just the right word is magic! (And I love Devolutionaries. Did I tell you that already? Can't wait to pick it up off the shelf at B&N!)

Unknown said...

OMG! This was so funny! Thanks for sharing! And I also thought it was funny that the day I blog about bloopers you write this! :P
(LOL about the giant block of text, too!)

Lydia Kang said...

Umm, you realize the other side of the T-shirt also has a seriously x-rated message too, right?

Anywho, I agree. Us vertically challenged people need to stick together!

Ellie Garratt said...

OMG. Too funny. And I know exactly how you feel because I only 5ft. At school nobody wanted me on their netball team. Come to think of it, any sports team!

Thanks for sharing.

Ellie Garratt

BK Mattingly said...

Awesome story and great point. :) I'm definitely going to check my WiP for these

Eric Satchwill said...

Not-quite-right words are the one reason I jump to a thesaurus. I know there's a specific word I'm looking for, but all I can think of is a word that means almost, but now quite, the same thing. So I look up that word, and browse until I have the one I couldn't think of before (then double-check with the dictionary to make sure I was right.)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Oh my gosh, that is too funny! I guess there's a reason they made those shirts for kids and not for adult women! LOL!

And I liked how you tied it into writing. Very good! :)


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