Wordsmith

September 2, 2020 ☞ Word of the day

As a noun, wordsmith is an acceptable (perhaps twee) way to refer to a writer of skill. As a verb, it’s a slur. I will explain.

The original use of wordsmith is unclear, but it is clearly a compound of two nouns. Word has been around for a minute, tracing all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) were- which turns out to be a popular root:

Old French turned verbum into verbe; not just word, but Word, that is, of God. It became the parts of speech that bring into being. The words of action; what we call verb in English. If there was any doubt of God’s vocation, take it from the French: she is a writer. The original verb-smith.

Speaking of, smith comes from the Old English smið (“one who works in metal”). Blacksmiths are so called because of their felicity with iron or “black metal.” But there are many kinds of smiths: silversmiths work with silver, locksmiths make locks, shoesmiths make shoes for horses, and The Smiths, of course, make songs for sad teenagers.

Smithy was as popular a job as it is a last name. But given how common the constituents of this compound, the origin of wordsmith is hard to trace:

1896, from word (n.) + smith (n.). There is a “Mrs. F. Wordsmith” in the Detroit City Directory for 1855-56, but perhaps this is a typo. Etymonline

Now look: the wordsmith metaphor is appealing. Imagining the Writer’s Craft as hot-metal toil and trouble is kind of sexy. The Wordsmith, mustachioed perhaps, armed with tongs, pulling hot-forged words from a raging kiln. The Wordsmith, sweaty and denim-aproned, pounding verbs and predicates into submission over anvil sparks. The Wordsmith, plunging her handiwork in a barrel of water, stepping forward through hot steam with her sentence perfectly cast and unbreakable.

But writing is nothing like that.

To me, the making of words feels like an older trade: agriculture. It starts with planting seeds, the ideas of life. The writer then brings water to sprouts with potential. She rips out weeds (the ideas that grow too easy) and chases away pests (the distractions welcomed as easily). She contends with fallow soil (i.e., a gig writing blogs for an ad-tech company, perhaps) and endures periods of drought (i.e., the condition of being human, tired, and uninspired).

To me, writing is the chemical remaking of the world into itself. There is no melting, no forging, no hammering of words into shape. It’s the seeming alchemy of turning sunlight and dirt into a tomato.

This is why I consider wordsmith, as a verb, a way to traduce writers. Just as graphic designers have endured “make it look pretty” from dudebroguys in boardrooms, “wordsmith this for me” conveys a similar misunderstanding of craft.

Designers don’t make things look pretty. They communicate with color and shape. Likewise, writers don’t rummage through a drawer in search of the perfect words. We do not hammer ingots into submission.

We continuously cultivate ideas (i.e., read), grow them into narratives (i.e., write) and harvest them at the moment of perfect ripeness (i.e., publish).

We don’t always get it right, because there is no right. A sword may have specifications, but tomatoes don’t. Language, and therefore writing, is organic. It is beyond hammers and steel. It is bringing into being, and it is life itself.