by Sarah Albrecht
“Humpback chub,” my fourth-grade son greeted me in the driveway after school.
This startled me only slightly, as he tends to latch onto words that intrigue him. He’d learned about humpback chub that day in science lab. They’re odd-looking endangered fish that live only in the Colorado River and can live to be twenty-five years old. Interesting as that may be, I doubt my son would have met me in the driveway and announced the fish’s name if it had been as mundane as “bass” or “trout.”
Which left me thinking about something we all know--that the right words have power. I liked the reminder anyway, because it's easy to draft vague mishmash. Great word choice is usually hard work, sweated out in revision. But the right word rouses interest. The right simile zings meaning to the reader’s mind.
Without going back to refresh myself, I tried thinking of great word choice in some of the books I’ve read, figuring that those words must have had staying power. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain described a courtier in orange tights as a forked carrot. Humpback chub didn’t startle me, but this did. In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard described a rising flock of starlings as a black net tossed into the air, and a daytime gibbous moon as a smudge of chalk. Perfect. In one of my most favorite books ever, A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park named her orphaned lead Tree Ear, the Korean term for mushrooms that grow on trees and appear without “parents.” The name intrigued while representing everything the character longed for.
When I actually have my work in progress far enough along that I can revise for word choice, I need to force myself to find those words that reach out and clutch readers. Maybe I’ll start with humpback chub?