john mcphee

Le Mot Juste


Flaubert would have been proud.  Today, I followed a committee discussion about principles, tracing their travels through language to find just the right way of capturing the way they wanted to describe and identify their future.  They were looking for le mot juste.  Each and every mot juste.  They pounded out the difference between promote and encourage, they explored the meaning behind some of the cliched phrases and jargon before them, casting old words aside for stronger, more precise words that accurately conveyed their aspirations.  It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

I have a hard time with writing by committee.  And yet it does have the potential to capture the broader world, when the participants are giving it their all, as these were.

This morning, I finished reading a New Yorker article by John McPhee in which he describes his use of the dictionary as a trail of breadcrumbs, moving from word to word until he stumbles across the gingerbread prize – le mot juste.

When the wisdom of a group produces something better than our individual searching – dictionary writers, copy editors, committee members, people who care – it’s a gratifying experience.