“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” C. S. Lewis
When I type the word smile and search for synonyms, I get six different options. If I do an internet search, one website gives me twelve. Though I have to be honest, I don’t really consider some of their choices exact synonyms.
Our language is full of variations for individual words, and an author has to be careful to choose their words wisely.
He leered at her.
It sounds bad. I wouldn’t want to be the object of his look. Is he a stalker? Is he planning an attack? I don’t really want to find out.
He smirked at her.
It’s a little less bad. He’s probably a little arrogant, and she probably just said something he found less than worthy. If she sees it, the look is likely to do one of two things. It could embarrass her. It could also make her angry if she doesn’t believe he’s everything he thinks he is.
He grinned at her.
Without any other context, this could be good or bad. But for the most part, we see a grin as a good thing. It’s playful, happy, and friendly. Maybe she just said something funny. Or maybe he’s shy and the grin is how he’s trying to show that he likes her.
All three are very different sentences, but all three words are included in the list of synonyms for smile. It’s the author’s job to know which one will best fit their story and avoid giving the reader the wrong ideas. The word or phrase has to fit the specific action and the intensity of the scene.
Choosing the wrong word can be damaging to the story you want to tell, but choosing an overused word or phrase can be just as harmful. When a word or phrase has been used to the point of becoming cliché it loses its power. At that point, your message is worse than lost. It’s boring.
Have you ever heard a small child trying to learn the art of telling jokes? We laugh politely at first wanting to encourage them. They know they’re on the right track without understanding why. So, they continue telling the exact same joke the exact same way. Even if their experience was more organically arrived at, by making the right face at the right time or inserting an unexpected phrase into the conversation, they only understand that it brought laughter. And they keep doing it. It works for a little while. Then, the laughter stops, and they don’t understand why it isn’t funny anymore.
This is the clichéd word or phrase in our writing. It stops carrying its original weight because we’ve overused it, stripping it of its depth of meaning. As writers, we’re warned away from these powerless words. Meaning can be restored over time, but only if the words are used correctly and sparingly.
The results of overuse reach far beyond the world of writers. Consider the word love. We have several types of love. There’s brotherly love, unconditional love, and passionate love. These three are used in scripture. In the original language they were distinct words. Yet when we translated them we had no better synonyms than love for each one. Only in looking at the context and at times a concordance can we find the intended meaning.
But it gets worse. We throw love around for everything from our latest crush to the new cupcake flavor at our local bakery. As it’s lost some of its depth, the word has come to symbolize nothing more than a feeling of want and liking. Maybe that’s why we’ve forgotten love isn’t always about making someone feel good. Sometimes, love has to take the tough path because real love, scriptural love is choosing to act in the best interests of someone else even if it isn’t easy for the one loving or the one being loved.
When Jesus pushed the rich young ruler to take a look at his allegiance to his fortune, he went away sad. He couldn’t accept Jesus’ requirement. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t loving him? Not at all. He was doing the most loving thing in pointing out what kept the man from truly following God. Even though it was hard to see, it was love that kept God from removing Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Through his struggle, Paul was able to learn to keep his focus on God and to trust in Him instead of relying on his own abilities. It was more loving for God to allow the suffering and work to grow Paul through it than for it to be removed. If removed Paul would face the temptation to put himself in God’s place as he saw his accomplishments as his own instead of God’s. God doesn’t take joy in our suffering, but He takes great joy when we allow Him to work in our suffering to make us more like Him.
Churches speak of love regularly, but the word has been watered down even in the pews. It’s time for believers to reclaim the meaning. It’s time for the church to live love like Jesus did. It’s time those who claim God in their lives begin loving not only in theory but in truth. Love should drive our actions and attitudes. When we do the hard things it should be for the best of others and in ways that leave those who are struggling to accept the truth feeling God’s love instead of feeling alone. When we do the easy things of love, it should be for God and those He loves instead of to make a name for ourselves.
By the Book: What does love mean to you? How can you help give love back its power?