Thursday, January 9, 2014

Word Choices: Heavy and Light Words

My dad once tortured Rags, his beloved Schnauzer, by leaving the radio on as comfort while Dad was away. The torturous component was the station pre-set in car and home: conservative talk radio starring the venomous Rush Limbaugh. Once when Dad shared his concern about Rags’s declining health, I answered quite seriously, “He may be suffering from Limbaugh-enza.” Dad was not amused. He believed that I leaned too far left, so far, in fact, I might well fall over one day, and to bring me back to center, he paid for a subscription to Reader’s Digest, a renewal announcement arriving well before Christmas every year.

In Dad’s memory, I continued to subscribe for several years, but lately, I’ve let it lapse. Still the Digest tries to win me back, occasionally sending a free complimentary copy just to remind me of what I’m missing, and that brings me to today’s post: a Reader’s Digest article (p. 55) in the December 2013 edition titled “Why Some Words Sound Heavy.”

A Not So Itsy Bitsy Spider, Sayulita, Mexico Casa 2010. Shapshot by Al Griffin.

According to the short article, food marketers understand language and its effects upon us very well—so well, in fact, that they choose product names to appeal to us. Cracker companies, for example, in an effort to turn our minds from calories and transfats, choose names that connote light and thin, and to accomplish this, they search for words with the short i or an e because front vowels convey small and light to us. That itsy, bitsy spider children sing about is not at all worrisome because it’s itsy and bitsy. Back vowels, on the other hand, convey big, weighty things so the name of a product that is lush, creamy and rich will contain back vowels. The article cites Triscuit, Cheez-It, and Ritz as example of front vowels. The back-vowel products have names like Rocky Road, Cookie Dough, and Jamoca Almond Fudge.

A Back-Vowel Food: Anniversary Cake. Snapshot 2010.

Advertisers are not the only ones who know this secret. Writers make use of language and its effects purposefully and beautifully.

Ralph Ellison did so in Invisible Man. Note the use of more back vowels than front in the following excerpt.

When I went in he was wiping his neck with a blue-bordered handkerchief. The shaded lamp catching the lenses of his glasses left half of his broad face in the shadow as his clenched fists stretched full forth in the light before him. I stood, hesitating in the door, aware suddenly of the old heavy furnishings, the relics from the times of the Founder, the framed portrait photographs and relief plaques of presidents and industrialists, men of power—fixed like trophies or heraldic emblems upon the walls.

The vowels suit the setting well. Furnishings are heavy, weighted with history and brushes with fame. More important, all that weight in setting and vowels support the greater weight suggested by clenched fists stretched . . . before him to create suspense, to foreshadow an ominous outcome.

So, dear Readers, be mindful of vowels and their contributions to meaning and tone. Choose words wisely.

Reading Challenge:

Read the opening paragraph of Joan Didion’s essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” first discussed in this blog on February 11, 2011. Note the author’s vowel choices. Consider also the abundance of sibilant consonants adding tension and foreboding.

Writing Challenge:


Select any 150-300 words from your own writing. Examine it for vowel sounds. Revise to make greater use of front or back vowels.