Sows’ ears, apples of gold, and the importance of choosing our words well

Regular readers of Generous Matters know I’m a sucker for a playful turn on a word. Pithy phrases. Meaty metaphors. Clever puns. I collect them. Use them. Savor them.

I believe that in the hands of a skillful writer, a sow’s ear can become a silk purse. “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

And as entrepreneur, strategist, and blogger Ruth Herceg tells us, “words can unlock even the dullest of imaginations.” That’s why she urges would-be Power Players to “fall in love with words and make them your greatest asset.”

The coolest Power Players don’t reach for the obvious ones. When they feel bent out of shape, they say they’re ‘discombobulated’. When they think someone is behaving strangely, they tell them they are ‘unglued’. When they think someone has made a weird call, they ask them if they’ve ‘eaten a plate of crazy’ for breakfast.

Although she doesn’t say it, I’m certain Herceg’s Power Players respect the peril, as well as the power, of words. It’s a fine line that separates clever from confusing, quirky from just plain odd. Choose the wrong word and we make fools of ourselves and our causes.


I think, for example, of a word choice faux pas from my time as vice president for advancement at Houghton (NY) College. We had commissioned wooden replicas of the much-loved Luckey Memorial Building as a thank you premium for annual fund donors. In a burst of (misguided) creativity, I suggested the marketing slogan, “Give to the Fund for Houghton College and get Luckey.”

How the message made it on to the back cover of the college magazine without someone along the production chain voicing concern, I’ll never know. But it did, followed by snickering (best case response) and outrage (worst case response).  Fortunately, we were able to remove the offending slogan before the annual fund brochure went to press and the episode was soon forgotten.

Except by me. To this day, my face burns red knowing that the unlucky “Luckey” issue of the Houghton magazine is on file in the  archives.


Good writing takes practice. Sprightly writing, more. Writing that is read, appreciated, and appropriate, much more.

Words can discombobulate. Choose wrong and you look unglued.  At times it’ll seem you ate a plate of crazy before sitting down to write.

But in a word, persevere. Keep on writing, even if you sometimes get it wrong. That’s how you get it right.


  1. Have you come across any good books on how to right well? I haven’t had a situation quite to the magnitude of your “Luckey” slogan…yet. I keep a stock of ibuprofen just waiting for that day!

  2. Dan, The best way to learn to write well, in my opinion, is to read what good writers are writing. There’s a plethora of writing textbooks, but for my learning style, seeing and then doing works best. My writing has also benefited from the heavy hand of editors over the years. Although it stings to see big chunks of my precious prose tossed aside, almost always I have to admit that the end product is better than what I submitted. The fun thing about blogging is that I don’t have to worry about an editor’s pen, although some days I wish I had that level of feedback. I don’t want to become sloppy.

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