Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Etymological sixth sense?

Etymological sixth sense?

Sometimes what appears to be an unexplainable preference actually has an explanation.

Last week I had the incredible good fortune to attend a writing retreat with children’s writing guru & editing luminary, Patricia Lee Gauch. Now a retired editorial director of Philomel (Penguin), Patti wrote some remarkable children’s books & is a passionate editor & teacher. A handful of the many authors whose award-winning books she edited are TA Barron, Jane Yolen, Judith St. George, Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco, Kathryn Erskine, Andrew Clements, Virginia Hamilton, & Brian Jacques.

While discussing making a scene come alive, Patti mentioned that many editors tend to ask authors for detail, but the word detail has never resonated for her. Instead, she sometimes asks for more specifics. Her default term though -- the word that really latches onto what she’s looking for in a scene that needs to come alive -- is texture.

Interesting. The modern word detail, meaning a small, subordinate piece, came to English about 1600 from a French noun that originally meant cut into pieces.

Her second choice, the noun specifics, arrived in English about that same time from Latin through French. The original Latin word meant kind or sort, & is also the parent word for the word species.

Patti's preferred word, texture, made its way into English two centuries earlier from Latin through Middle French. It’s related to the word textile & comes from a verb that meant to weave or fabricate.  

In his/her efforts to help an author craft a book, an editor is doing all s/he can to help the author weave the disparate strands of character, story, setting & tension into something whole, something complete. Nobody wants a story to be cut into pieces. Maybe it's no surprise that a gifted, longstanding editor winces at the use of the word detail, finds the word specifics acceptable, but not quite right, & relishes the word texture.  

Does Patti’s word choice when it comes to editorial advice reflect a sixth sense regarding the history of these words? Can a word’s origins follow it from language to language & culture to culture, through centuries of change?

Readers, writers, what are your thoughts on this? Please chime in by clicking on comments below.


  1. I agree that "specifics"better describes what a story needs. "Details" always sounds a little frivolous to me. And if it's the difference between identifying something and tearing it to bits, I'd say the first word is much better. :-)

    I'm not sure "texture" conveys much, though, even though it comes from weaving. "Texture" doesn't say much to me. "Weaving" does though. That's probably because I didn't know the origin of the word "texture." Now I do.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Thanks for joining me in the Ponder Pond. I hadn't previously thought much about using the word "texture" in this way, but it's working for me.

  2. I am intrigued by the use of the word "texture" in this way. I get it. You can feel, see and taste texture. You can even hear texture in music. I like it.

    1. Hey Christine,
      As I read your comment I saw myself in a fabric store -- for me, fabric is initially about the tactile experience - touch, feel, drape. I like the idea that writing & music might be similar.