“O.K, now . . . You’re going to feel a little pinch.” Anyone who has visited the dentist has heard this “A pinch.” The dentist lifts a stainless steel syringe, leans toward your mouth, and reaches for your gums. You know what comes next: not a pinch but a sting. A piercing.
“Why do dentists use that word?” I said, drooling in the dentist’s chair last week.
“‘Pinch.’ When a needle punctures my gums, I don’t feel a pinch—do you?”
I’ve been pinched a number of times over the years: fingers (in hinges), toes (remember the 60s?); my rear end (I grew up among Europeans). And what goes on in my mouth feels nothing like that.
“Wait,” I said, “Why do you say ‘pinch’?”
“I don’t know. That’s what we’re told. I never thought about it. What would you say, then?”
He stopped, syringe in hand, and seemed to think. No answer. So I answered for him.
”It’s a prick, a stab, a bite, a sting. The injection you’re going to give me is like a venomous sting, like a snake’s bite—a temporarily painful but prolonged venomous sting followed by a deep ache and a kind of numbness. Were I spending more time reading National Geographic and less time in places like this, I would fear paralysis and death.”
The dentist looked alarmed.
“Why don’t you just tell the truth—at least get closer to it?”
I waited for “You can’t handle the truth.” But he didn’t quite say that. He did intimate that patients would be frightened. That they wouldn’t cooperate. That vigorous adults are allowed to gloss the truth for children and the elderly.
Dentists are like us: none of us wants trouble. We probe around until we find a word that works for they way we think the world could be, not a word that describes the world as it is.
Beginning writers do this all the time: We use words that sound good, words that make us feel good, words that glaze the truth, words that we hope others will like us for using, words we’ve read or heard before or whose meanings and history are lost to us, along with our original experiences. Words that are so vague or trite that they carry sensibility but little meaning. Words that won’t offend. Words that are often not honest.
Precision is a necessary instrument for a writer. A precise word is a service to both our readers and to us. When we are precise in our language and honest with our audience, we are more likely to be honest with ourselves—another necessity for good writing.
The next time I visited my dentist, he agreed to prepare me for a venomous sting and told me to open wide and tilt my head toward the light while he found the precise place for the needle. His precision almost compensated for the pain.