Etymological sixth sense?
Sometimes what appears to be an unexplainable preference actually has an explanation.
Each year I have 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. She was the first editor to hire illustrator extraordinaire, Floyd Cooper. And here's a handful of the many authors whose award-winning books she edited: Jane Yolen, TA Barron, Judith St. George, Lloyd Alexander, Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco, Kathryn Erskine, Andrew Clements, Virginia Hamilton, & Brian Jacques.
While discussing making a scene come alive, Patti notes 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 their efforts to help authors craft books, editors are doing all they can to help those authors 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.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED. Photo by Megan Frances Abrahams.
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I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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