I’m fortunate to have an activity that consumes me. Some people don’t require an immersing passion and are content to pass their days tending to interests that float by or difficulties that pop up. But when I write a sentence that makes me laugh or use a word in a particularly clever way, my joy is set for the whole day. And when a plot seems weak or inauthentic I descend into a state of upheaval.
This morning I’m stumbling over the use of the word “virago.” It scans well and the meaning fits, though I want to make sure it’s not just a good word, but the perfect word.
Here is the sentence:
“Caught between the two viragoes, I make no attempt to intervene, but instead take a deep breath, focus on my hands in my lap, and go to a serene place in my head.”
It feels right. But my fear is that use of the archaic vocabulary will distract from the story. Perhaps a more current word would be better. So I turn to my most outstanding helper, Peter Mark Roget, who created a system of ordering words by nuance as well as meaning. There is no greater resource when it comes to synonyms and extended connotations. For instance, in the index there are seven entries for “wobble,” an indication that the word is subject to seven subtle distinctions; and each entry gives at least thirty words that are near in meaning or connected to wobble in some way. The progeny of words doesn’t get much better than that.
But to my disappointment, there is no virago between viper (two entries) and virgin (twelve entries). For the first time, Roget has let me down.
Flummoxed, I rush down the hall to discuss it with David, who’s in the bedroom getting dressed for the day’s work on the Habitat house. The house the crew is currently working on will belong to Pastor Perry. It’s going up next door to the last one they built. To further enlighten, the recently completed house caused grumbles and discord within the local chapter of Habitat when the young owner/recipient requested yellow paint and lavender trim. Because of this nontraditional choice, arguments ensued and feelings were hurt. In the end, freedom of expression won and she now lives in a house that looks like an Easter egg, which I find charming while others term it an eyesore.
“There is no entry for virago in my Thesaurus,” I tell David, waving it about.
“Internet,” he says.
So to the internet I go. I’m disheartened when I see how many entries there are. I scroll through three pages of thesauruses that include virago without coming across Roget.
Oh Roget, Roget, incomplete and obsolete. Superfluous. A redundant tome. Inferior. Worn and Torn.
Virago has two opposing meanings.
The first: a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman.
This accurately describes my two characters.
The second: a woman with exemplary or heroic qualities.
Well, there’s nothing exemplary or heroic to be found in my bickerers.
But then I come across a couple of other synonyms: shrew and termagant. Also from a long-ago century. I look ’em up. Shrew: famously and obviously Shakespeare; Termagant: well, it’s all over ancient literature from Song of Roland to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And many others, but these are the only ones I’m familiar with.
I decide to leave virago where it is for now. And look, I’ve squandered thirty minutes having fun with alternative words for bitch.
David has gone his way and I have half an hour before I need to leave for yoga; plenty of time to wallow in sentimentality. I take a picture of my old Thesaurus and consider how much it’s helped me over the years. When I moved from country to country I carefully packed it in my luggage rather than putting it in the shipment to follow later. When I required subtext—humorous, snide, imperious, or otherwise, it offered endless choice. It was indispensible and beloved.
And now look at it. A yellowed corpse. Symbolic of my growth yet with no purpose at all. Rendered pointless by the mighty www.
I tie on my hiking boots. In the garage I locate a trowel. Hugging the volume to my breast, I trek across the crunchy damp grass to the back of our property, the section that’s easy to dig in because it’s been churned up by feral hogs. With David’s trusty gardening tool I dig a hole. I make it deep so the hogs and armadillos can’t sniff it out. I lay my old friend down, slap cold mud over it, and tamp it.