Have you ever considered how one little word can ignite a search for a whole slew of better ones?
Take “walk” for example.
Amble is a better word than walk. So is strut. And meander. “Walk” is too generic. It’s like that drawer in your kitchen where everything ends up; it’s a utility player, the general practitioner of words meaning to put one foot in front of the other. Amble and strut and meander are specialists. So are totter and march and stroll and stagger and saunter.
Walking is what somebody you can’t bring clearly into focus does. It is just movement, with no regard to character or detail. Ambling, on the other hand, is what your fifth-grade teacher used to do when she moved down the rows to watch her students work. She took her time. She strolled. And strutting is what that prissy girl that works at the diner does. The one who pops her gum while she struts out with your blue plate special. She infuses even that simple range of movement with an attitude. She prances.
When that fifth-grade teacher told you to march yourself right down to the principal’s office, you knew what she meant. She didn’t say to meander, and she certainly didn’t say to strut, which would mean that you would have to do it with an attitude, which was probably the very thing that got you into hot water in the first place.
She wouldn’t have said to run or rush down there, because that would imply that it might be a pleasant journey, that you might actually enjoy the trip. What she wanted was for you to move in a direct and straightforward manner. No nonsense (a good word). No shenanigans (a better one). March! She knew precisely what she wanted. And so did you.
There are plenty of better words than walk, precisely because there are plenty of different types of walking.
Let’s use John Wayne as proof positive of that. If you are of a certain vintage you might have smiled just then, as a big man moved into your thinking. If not, you should ask your father or grandfather who John Wayne was, and you’ll find out quick enough.
Sometimes John Wayne floated as he much as he walked. Wobbling off course like a gyroscope gone berserk. Ambling. His big arm pushing forward, like a swimmer caught in a strong current. His legs taking almost impossibly tiny steps. Sometimes he was like a dust devil, like a sudden whirlwind drifting along in a field, tilting this way and that, finally playing itself out. The major difference being that when he stopped he might just wallop somebody.
Watch him swagger off toward the little cottage where Maureen O’Hara is waiting for him in The Quiet Man, listing so far to port that it seems, for just an instant, that he might lose his balance altogether, crashing heavily into the earth like a felled oak.
He doesn’t, of course. Falling isn’t any more of a possibility than flying. Then sometimes he moves so resolutely forward that there’s no swagger at all. No ambling. Watch him eat up the ground in the climactic scene in Red River, like a locomotive in full steam, dead set on making short work of Montgomery Clift when he gets to him.
Now watch him move, exhausted, down the gangplank in an early scene of the WWII epic In Harm’s Way. He’s slouching along now, nearly used up. His warship looms gray and massive behind him in the dark night, in port to be knocked back together after a fight, welders’ sparks exploding in little bursts along her side. His arm is in a sling; his brow is low over weary eyes that are no more than slits. He’s beat up, like his ship. But both of them are still here, needing just a little rest before hitting another lick.
Watch him cross the cabin’s threshold from darkness into light in The Searchers. He’s darn near limping now, out into a new day. Out into yet another screwed up situation that he’ll have to fix.
There were as many variations of John Wayne’s walk as there were situations the characters he played found themselves in. And — guess what? — the same is true for you and the situations you find yourself in.
Thus endeth the lesson on the action verb “walk” and its proxies. Your assignment is to, when tempted to use that word, pick yourself a better one. Because specificity is one of the things that separates interesting people from boring ones, and true wordsmiths from lazy communicators.
There are way too many of those.
(Part of this is from Sundays with Ron Rozelle, Texas Christian University Press: 2009)