February 26, 2019

Words of the Month - Undisobeyable?

        Obviously there are times during writing when I can’t think of exactly the right word.  Rather than stop and break the flow by trying too hard to come up with the perfect word in that moment, I use the nearest approximation and keep on writing.  However, my system is that I put that not-quite-right word in brackets to remind myself that it does need fixing.  A few weeks ago I was toying with my changeling story, in a section in which the human boy has been taken on the Faeries’ hunt.  There is a line: The king’s voice was [undisobeyable].  “Kill it.”
        I reached for my thesaurus to figure out the right word to replace that not-quite-right “undisobeyable,” and was dismayed to find no such word for exactly what I meant.  What I am trying to express is a sense that the boy felt that disobeying was simply not a physically, emotionally, humanly possible option.  He was not capable of refusing the king’s order, no matter how much he wanted to.

You’d think that the double negative “undis-“could be simplified to give us the positive obeyable.  But obeyable, besides being clunky, means you can obey, but not that you must obey.  Obeying is wholly optional.

The words that should mean you have to obey include mandatory, obligatory, and compulsory.  But these really just mean that the law says you must obey, but not that you are actually unable to break the law.  Plus, they would apply more to the action than the order, as in the killing being mandatory, rather than the king’s voice being mandatory.

The king’s voice might be commanding, authoritative, imperative, imperious, peremptory.  But these tell more about the attitude of the speaker than the effect that his voice has on the hearer.  We already know the king of the Faeries is issuing a command, and these adjectives don’t really explain the additional power of his voice that I’m trying to express.

Irresistible and compelling have the right sense of being unable to be resisted, but they make it sound like the boy is convinced rather than forced, and irresistible is much too positive, anyway.

Overpowering and inescapable, when describing a voice, just sound loud or penetrating.

Relentless and inexorable are close, but I already used them both in the preceding lines!

Of course I could just leave undisobeyable - other authors have used it.  But it sounds awfully clunky, and if my readers get thrown out of the flow to wonder whether that’s even a real word, that defeats my purpose altogether.

        I think what I’ll have to do is rewrite the sentence completely, or simply leave it out.  But I feel quite aggrieved that in a language with insane numbers of synonyms, we don’t seem to have a word for just this particular usage.  English doesn’t fail me often, but it’s interesting (if frustrating!) to examine those cases when it does.  Of course, if anyone does think of the perfect word I’m missing, please let me know!

[Picture: Richard I, woodcut from The Pastyme of people by John Rastell, 1530 (Image from University of Glasgow).]


Pipistrello said...

Hello Anne, I'm new to these pages and not quite sure how I came here but do love the images you post...As to your dilemma, it is a pity when English lets us down, which doesn't happen too often as we are lucky to have a rich and frankly quite lovely language. I'd look to the King as your cue, (who by his nature is to be naturally obeyed), and play around with synonyms like Majesty and Emperor, and see if you like magisterial (maybe not as forceful enough) or imperious (better!) as your alternative to undisobeyable? Good luck with your word hunt!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Pipistrello. I can tell you are a fellow lover of seeing what the English language can do!