Words, words, endless words! At times the most ardent word lover longs for silence. Not, however, when the word is what the French call le mot juste--the exact word. For le mot juste is the caviar of word fare. The cre me de la cre me.
Actually, le mot juste may be more than one word or a phrase. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines mot juste as "the expression that conveys a desired shade of meaning with more precision than any other." Numerous foreign words and phrases, culled from many of the languages of the world, are used widely in English. Many convey the desired shade of meaning with such precision that they have been incorporated in English without translation, thereby preserving their piquancy.
Thanks to Julia Child, we say "Bon appe'tit!" before dinner. Even the faint of heart garnish conversations with such confections as comme ci, comme c,a; c'est la vie; je ne sais quoi, and touche'. We all speak of Achilles' heel--no doubt because we all have one. Graffiti is what we call the writing on the wall in public places. We describe our world-weary friends as blase' and our elegant friends as chic. And we avoid a stream of invective by referring to an incorrigible child (who may be an adult) as enfant terrible.
Once you acquire a taste for le mot juste, it can become a habit, even an obsession. The risk is worth taking, for le mot juste, rendered with accuracy and flair, can add color to an otherwise drab exchange of words, bestow jauntiness on the plainest of mortals and crown imaginative users with panache.
The choice of a word, even one single word, especially if it is le mot juste, can make immeasurable difference. For example, when confronted with someone's litany of woe, you could look to the heavens and sigh "Kismet!" Or you could utter "Really," a banal retort in widespread use.
Another fascination of le mot juste is the sound. Consider the pronunciation of le mot juste (luh-moh-ZHUST). It not only sounds luscious, it feels luscious as it rolls off the tongue. And speaking of rolling off the tongue, try taking your leave with arrivederce (ah-ree-veh-DEHR-chee), drawing out each delicious syllable like a never-ending string of spaghetti. After making the acquaintance of arrivederce, a mere "good-bye" is unthinkable. And what of ciao (chow), which means both "hello" and "good-bye." Or the subtle, silken sound of au revoir (oh-ruh-VWAR) that lingers long after you have gone.
This rhapsody to le mot juste should be tempered with a word of caution. There are perils. In particular: mispronunciation and misuse (including ostentatious display). Whereas William F. Buckley Jr. can be depended on to render le mot juste with style, accuracy and appropriateness to audience, many others, including Those in High Places, often miss the mark.
Another peril worth mentioning: the repetition of a very limited repertoire. Discretion should be used, for too-frequent repetition of favorite mots justes will bore friends and give sustenance to enemies.
As H.W. Fowler says in his impeccable guide, Dictionary of Modern English Usage: "Those who use words or phrases belonging to languages with which they have little or no acquaintance do so at their peril."
And about French words specifically, Fowler says, "Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth--greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners. That is the guiding principle alike in the using and in the pronouncing of French words in English writing and talk . . . of the thousand or so French words and phrases having some sort of currency in English none can be prohibited, and few can be given unconditional licenses; it is all a matter of the need, the audience, and the occasion."
But have courage--along with a good dictionary--and learn to savor the delights of a mot juste here and there. You can never know too many words. For, like us, words are "such stuff as dreams are made on."