Sprachgefühl: Finding the Perfect Word

June 17, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Christine Yount Jones

To develop sprachgefühl, Charles Johnson, in his book The Way of the Writer, recommends that writers read the dictionary one hour a day to develop a robust vocabulary from which to choose.

One hour a day!?

The dictionary!?

The parts of speech and etymology sections too? Does an audiobook version count? Is there an audiobook for the dictionary?

I digress.

Sprachgefühl. It’s a nice German word with its impossible umlaut nowhere on my keyboard. So I copy/paste it from the internet. At first glance, sprachgefühl seems to mean the sprocket is full, but no, Nancy Friedman writes on her blog that “sprachgefühl means, literally, ‘a feeling for language’ – sprach is related to English ‘speech,’ and fühl to ‘feel.’”

To which Dan, her one commenter, writes, “Sprachgefühl. Great word. I love it.

Fun to say; a nice phlegmy, guttural ‘Sprach,’ and a lip and tongue-twisting umlaut in ‘fühl.’ It sounds like a Sid Caesar-type German word. It sounds like what it means.”

Good one, Dan.

Johnson contends that writers need sprachgefühl because it’s a sensitivity or feel for “the exactly correct word for a thought or experience.” Could he mean that sprachgefühl helps a writer find the antediluvian word that most likely leaves poor readers scrambling to dictionaries to figure out what the heck that obscure word means?

Is this communication? Or writers trying to impress one another with their fustian vocabulary?

Recently in a writer’s group, two words in a peer’s narrative fiction stumped me. After stopping to look up ecdysis and peripatetic, I commented by asking if she wanted her dear reader to stop reading this early and look up these words.

Then I hit the online dictionary (so I could look smarter than I am). Was there something wrong with me that I didn’t already know these words? Maybe everyone but me reads the dictionary for an hour each day? Maybe people already know what ecdysis and peripatetic mean and I was showing my ignorance?

I deleted the comment.

Years ago, I learned that words have no power or purpose if they’re not understood. Home from college for a weekend, I sat with my mother after breakfast in what had once been my grandmother’s kitchen. My mother, who had graduated from high school, had worked as a bank teller most of her adult life and in a few years would go back to school to become a nurse. She is no numpty.

I can’t recall what we talked about exactly, but I was a sophomore in college, so it must have been quite heady. My mother stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Chris, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

I sat there slack jawed.

“If people don’t understand what you’re saying, you’re not communicating,” she said.

I had no idea that college had given me a Backpfeifengesicht* but she was right. My mother’s wisdom has stuck with me through decades of writing and editing.

So I ask the question again: Should we as writers push the dear reader to know words like ecdysis (the process of shedding the old skin) and peripatetic (traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods)?

Would my writer friend’s dear reader be better served if she chose a more common word for ecdysis? Say, a state of escape, shedding, stripping away, taking off, or undressing? I have to admit that once I looked up the word, it felt like ecdysis definitely had the essence of sprachgefühl. My friend had effectively compared the character’s peripatetic life to that of a snake shedding its skin.

But peripatetic? Be honest. Would you have to look it up or is it just me? Instead of peripatetic to refer to her character having lived in sixteen different places in her lifetime, why not use nomadic, vagabondish, vagranty? Oh, I hear it now. Maybe that’s why.

We must ask: By finding the word that satisfies our sprachgefühl, must we look for the most pretentious word we can find? As an example, if one were writing about “any complex instrument or mechanism for a particular purpose” such as a vehicle, rowing machine, or bra, why not use doodad, thingamajig, or whatchamacallit instead of apparatus? Perhaps apparatus is too difficult a word for some; who’s to know? Would the more simple words clearly communicate to the dear reader? Or should the writer use her sprachgefühl to find a word the dear reader has never heard–nor will ever use–simply so the dear reader understands that the writer is nonpareil?

Today, while scrolling a thesaurus site (sprachgefühls Bible), I found the word gubbins that the Brits use for apparatus. Yes, why not use gubbins, which means gadgets or gadgetry? That will take the dear reader straight to the dictionary to find that gubbins also means “a foolish or futile person.”

“You silly gubbins.”

There are ways of impressing readers without confounding them. Kurt Vonnegut’s apt advice was to pity the readers. He wrote, “Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify–whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

 “Sprachgefühl is an important quality for a dictionary editor,” according to Frederick Mish, the late editor-in-chief at Merriam Webster. A dictionary editor! For today’s writers, though, sprachgefühl should take us to the simplest and clearest word rather than making the reader feel like a gubbin.

* Backpfeifengesichta face that’s badly in need of a fist

___

Christine Yount Jones writes non-fiction and fiction after a career in publishing–both print and digital. She has published 14 books and hundreds of articles. She is currently working on a memoir, collection of short stories, and an MFA from Lindenwood University. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, Teddy the dog, numerous deer and a few bears. She can be found at https://www.christineyountjones.com/

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§ 10 Responses to Sprachgefühl: Finding the Perfect Word

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I think it all has to do with voice and tone. Readers can tell when a writer is using obscure words in an effort to sound smart. But if it’s the writer’s natural voice, it fits. My favorite example of this is Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” Bechdel is obviously a smart, thoughtful, contemplative person with a great vocabulary. I turned to the dictionary many times while reading the book, but I never felt that she was being pretentious. It just seemed natural.

  • clpauwels says:

    I wrote on this topic after a particularly unpleasant writing group confrontation (full disclosure: I was rude, and for years I’ve considered tracking her down to apologize).

    It takes concerted effort to find that balance between *just* the right word and confusing readers.

    Say It Ain’t So

    Look at me – I’m so clever.
    I’m a raving literary genius.
    Spilling words onto paper
    Syllables, sounds, random thoughts
    Images without reflection
    Ideas without connection
    Letters without a cause.

    My creative spark
    Gives me license
    To ignore the mundane
    Eschew the practical
    Shun elementary rules.
    Spelling, grammar,
    Punctuation, you say?
    But why?
    I’m a raving literary genius.
    If you can’t grasp
    My lofty ideas
    That’s your problem.

    Find your own space.
    Create your own art.
    Invent your own rules.
    Everyone does.
    Is it any wonder no one understands?

  • Judy Reeves says:

    I’m of two minds here–I understand about clarity and wanting to be straight-forward in our writing, but I also love a writer who, on occasion, sends me to the dictionary, a writer who clearly knows language and appreciates it. I keep a commonplace notebook beside me when I read and write down words I don’t know, so I can look them up later.

    Mark Twain:”The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

  • elvagreen123 says:

    Reading the dictionary one day I discovered this word: Weltschmertz. Which is odd because I have this feeling a lot even 30 years ago. German-noun: a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness. I love words.

  • Sandy Kline says:

    Sing it, sister! You are so right!

  • Tom Stewart says:

    Christine’s post is, well, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

  • Laura Rink says:

    I’m also of two minds. Intention matters. Audience matters. I much prefer learning new words through interesting and entertaining writing than slogging through the dictionary an hour a day.

  • Andy Kass says:

    I find the key to using le mot juste is to provide context to amplify the meaning of the right word, must as when employing an expression from a language other than that generally used in a piece.

  • I agree wholeheartedly!

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