Le mot juste

In the recent round of edits that my editor Karen completed on Dark Streets she pointed out a recurring tic in my language that I hadn’t noticed. In my descriptions of London at night I used the word ‘obsidian’ to describe the Thames no fewer than three times in the first dozen chapters.

There is nothing like edits and rewrites to focus you on your writing style and repeated themes, and this sort of thing is to be expected, but it got me to thinking about why this word in particular? Why ‘obsidian’? Is this just happenstance, or is there something about the word that goes deeper than that.  At the risk of gathering enough navel fluff to knit a sweater I thought I’d dig into it a bit.

Let’s be clear at the outset that it’s the perfect descriptive word for the river at night. I want to convey that it’s black, but has a faint sheen. I want something a bit exotic, but also of plain meaning.  Obsidian is volcanic glass, and at one time it would have flowed, so describing the river as obsidian extends some meaning beyond the obvious. At slack tide the river seems hardly to be flowing at all and at night, in my London at least, it looks like a solid sheet of black glass. This is the world of Dark Streets, after all, and the river is a sort of dark street that winds through the city, a street paved in obsidian. Or something of that sort.

In any event, it carries multiple layers of meaning in a way that other words can’t.  Black, dark, Stygian, bituminous, other words don’t really cut it, each for its own reason.

As to reasons other than it being entirely apposite, there might be something in my past that explains my affection for the word. In high school I studied geology, and was very taken by the language of rocks. Out of the three ways that rock is formed, volcanicity is the most interesting to the teenage mind and I loved learning about pahoehoe, volcanic tuff, basalt massifs, and underground magma reservoirs. Geology is about physical material influenced by physics and the elements over time, and it is filled with interesting words, quite a few of which are in common parlance but many of which are novel to the everyday ear.

Then there is the influence of the writers who have most impressed me over the years. From the age of about 15 onwards I devoured everything I could find by Michael Moorcock, who was then and is now one of the finest genre and literary writers to come out of London. I was especially taken with his fantasy work and I think it’s there that I picked up a penchant for words like obsidian. It features in a number of his works, including the Elric series, and there is a story in the Eternal Champion sequence titled ‘Phoenix In Obsidian’1.

More than the immediate obvious meaning of the word, it carries an extended meaning in my personal literary psychogeography.  This may be a false memory, but if I remember correctly there’s at least one end-of-all-things Moorcock story that has a protagonist standing on the black sand coast of a weary ocean watching the molasses-thick waves lap at his feet. I might be mixing that up with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series of short stories, but the influence on my associations with the word is there, nevertheless. When I hear ‘obsidian’ I think of those things. It’s a word that speaks to me not just of a vitreous darkness, but also of time.

So where am I going with this, other than to wonder where the words come from and why we obsess around some particular words? Not very far, and if you’re feeling like you might have to reach in really high to grab my ankles and pull me out of where I’ve gone, it’s probably time I stopped.

It’s merely this: the choice of the correct word in the correct place is the essence of writing. Sometimes you realize that there is too much of a good thing and you have to choose not to use the correct word and find something almost as precise. I wonder if Marlow would have told the story of his travels in Africa sitting on a boat bobbing on the piceous Thames?


1 Mike has other writing tics with respect to favoured words. ‘Sardonic’ is one of them, as anyone who has read Elric and Jerry Cornelius will testify.

2 thoughts on “Le mot juste

  1. Best to you, Ed.Interesting stuff from Moorcock. I read and enjoyed all those books back when, but when I tried a clopue recently they seemed bland. More slapdash than style, maybe?

  2. Yes, I’m not sure how well they travel across time. Moorcock himself has said that he would write books to formula and rapidly. I think in the collection of essays ‘Death Has No Obstacle’ he says that Stormbringer was written over a weekend.

    I think his level of invention stands up – Elric has become an archetype in modern fantasy – and the concept of the Eternal Champion is a very clever idea.

    I wonder how well fantasy holds up as you get older. I read an awful lot of it in my late teens and early twenties, but find myself very critical of it now. I tried to read A Game of Thrones and couldn’t get past the first two chapters it felt so cliched.

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