If we’re pet lovers and we faithfully pick up our dog’s dropping, we refer to that steaming offering as poo, don’t we? But when we step in a hunk of it on our way to an important meeting, it suddenly becomes dog shit.
The circumstances and origin of that awful inconvenience usually merits a considerably stronger reference, and the other day I had the dubious pleasure of hearing a well-heeled young lady scream, “I’ve fallen into a pile of fucking dog cack!” Everyone around her cracked up, and when the young lady’s colour returned to something less than life-threatening, she saw the funny side of it too.
Our choice of words can dramatically change the emphasis on what we want to express. We often use words that mean exactly the same thing, yet conjure up an entirely different picture.
I was recently writing about the Australian outback, and thought I had the mood just right. I’d spent time researching the weather in that part of the continent and had a good idea of the type of flora that predominate there.
But the piece wasn’t quite right, and for ages I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. And then it leapt out of the page at me. It was one word. One simple little word, and all I needed to do was change it and everything would be solved.
The word I changed was earth. It became dirt. And the entire universe shifted. Did the earth move? Did the ground tremble? Well, not exactly, unless it did for you around about that time, but someone reading my words in the not too distant future will have a better feeling for those harsh, uncompromising badlands of Australia’s backyard.
That one word, dirt, created a flavour beyond the capacity of earth. In the context of the story, it was meant to pique the imagination and bring the reader out of their comfort zone for just a moment. A bit like shit really.