What would the greatest show on earth be without the right word?
August 12, 2015
I DON’T REMEMBER who said it or wrote it.
I will never forget it.
A picture can tell a thousand words, but a few words can change history.
As writers, our lives are forever wrapped in words and folded within the pages of a book.
Our words may not change the world.
But they can definitely change who we are.
In books, in novels, in stories, we have one simple goal.
As we scatter words on a page, we look for just the right one, and the hunt goes one, and sometimes the right word is beyond our grasp.
They don’t have to be big words.
Smaller ones almost always work better.
For example, Robert Frost once said: In three words I can sum up everything I know about life: It goes on.
And so it does.
Whether he realized it or not, P. T. Barnum was a genius when it came to words.
During his life, he was America’s greatest showman.
It was the mid-1800s, and everyone in the nation was sick and tired of strife and war, of dying and hard times.
They wanted an escape. P. T. Barnum gave them one.
His celebrated museum stood five stories tall and offered the greatest collection of entertainers in the world.
Some were real.
Barnum didn’t mind.
Neither did those thirty-eight million souls who paid a quarter a piece to see what P. T. Barnum had wrought.
No one was disappointed.
Within the walls, they found oddities, hoaxes, and a freak show, along with a flea circus, a loom operated by a dog, the trunk of the tree where the disciples of Jesus sat, a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, and Ned the learned seal.
Looking for an oyster bar?
Barnum had it.
Looking for a rifle range?
Barnum had it.
Looking for educational lectures?
Barnum had those, too.
The museum was open fifteen hours a day, and no one wanted to leave.
They were too busy checking out jugglers, ventriloquists, rope dancers, giants, dwarfs, singing, dancing, and American Indian religious ceremonies.
The stars were the human curiosities that no one had ever seen or imagined before.
The Fegee Mermaid possessed the head and torso of a monkey, the tail of a fish.
Chang and Eng were Siamese twins who could not stand each other. They each married and together fathered twenty-one children. It was a crowded and busy marital bed.
Josephine Boisdechene had a long beard. But then, she had a head start. It had grown two inches by the time she was eight years old.
General Tom Thumb was advertised as The Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone. He was age four when he came to the museum, but Barnum passed him off as an eleven-year-old. He was taught to imitate everyone from Hercules to Napoleon. Within a year, he was drinking. By the time he was seven, General Tom Thumb was smoking a cigar on stages. He had simply stopped growing after the first six months of his life, and, at the time, he was twenty-five inches tall and weighed only fifteen pounds. He never gained in height. He did put on a few pounds.
But, alas, I am not writing about freaks or curiosities.
I am writing about words and the finding the right one for the right time in a story.
It seems that P. T. Barnum faced a serious dilemma.
His museum was drawing as many as fifteen thousand visitors a day, it was crowded, it was cramped, nobody wanted to leave, and good paying customers were lined up outside, all trying to could get in.
Barnum simply did not have room for them.
How could he persuade his guests to leave the museum?
He put up exit signs.
No one exited.
And he realized he had used the wrong word.
He found the right one.
Beside a hallway leading to the back door, Barnum placed a large and somewhat exotic sign that proclaimed: THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS.
Everyone was excited.
The Egress must be a new exhibit.
What is it?
But everybody was curious.
Everybody wanted to see the Egress.
They walked down the hallway, opened the door, and stepped out into the alley.
The door quietly shut behind them.
It was locked.
They could go back in the museum, of course.
That wasn’t a problem.
But first they had to stand in line, and, secondly, they had to buy another ticket.
The right word works every time.