The Use of Words in The Death of Rafael.

One of the great gifts of writing in English (I speak as someone whose mother tongue is not English) is the incredible wealth of the vocabulary, and the shaded meaning of words that would be in another language, only one word describing one thing, either abstract or concrete.

One such word is certainty. The idea of being certain of something has another word to describe it–certitude.

Why do why even bother to go into this?  Because, well… I was criticized for using the word ‘certitude’ instead of ‘certainty’ and one of the two reviewers (called Vine reviewers) for Amazon ABNA competition who were assigned to review my excerpt, was so disturbed, or disgusted, or indignant of my use of a ‘bigger’ word than necessary, that while the rest of her review  was quite complimentary and  very positive, the word ‘certitude’ certainly may have contributed to getting The Death of Rafael taken out of the competition.

So, I need vindication. Although this would not put me back in competition, it is a commentary on the fickle finger of fate and all that, I just want to share some word crafting. (Okay, I’m also venting… I admit it. So, there!) 


If you consult the dictionary, the two are interchangeable.

Yes. And no. The difference is small, but it is a difference, and if writing is like music to you, it would ‘vibrate’ differently on the string of your writing instrument.

This is what Grammist says:

 One definition that certainty does not share with certitude is something that is clearly established or certain. But where certainty means the state of being certain, it is very close to certitude, which means the state of feeling absolutely convinced. If there is a difference, it’s that certitude is a feeling while certainty involves inherent factuality.

Clear? Nope.

Let me give you the example in The Death of Rafael.

On page 24, Daniela (Rafael’s sister) is on the phone with her mother, Giselle, about preparations for Rafael’s birthday. Giselle makes the statement that Rafael likes lilac.  As Rafael is not around to tell anyone whether he likes lilac, or gladiolas, or some carnivorous bloom instead, Giselle does not know that he likes lilac for a fact. It is not factual. In this case it is her imagination, what she imagines for Rafael, and in her obsession, she has no doubt that it is so. But because it is not factual, there is no certainty. However, because she has ‘the feeling’ that it is so, there is certitude.

Therefore, Daniela remarks that her mother knows this ‘with great certitude.’

Is the use of certitude vs. certainty  kind of precious and blue-socked and pedantic, and pretentious?

Yes. And so what? I didn’t know all this when I used the word certitude in the novel. It just somehow sounded right to me.  So I am totally innocent. Just got lucky.

Do people talk like that? Not in general. But Daniela, when she speaks this line, is a lawyer and a superior court judge. Yup, she could talk like that.





  • stefania
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I can’t understand why was it so important to use certainty and not certitude? As I know both of these words are Latin words abd in French they have the same meaning: I am writing it in French: certitude,assurance.Like a lot of English words, the Latin words can be used as we want and feel it doesn’t change the meaning of what the writer intends to say.
    A writer is free to write as he thinks , a novel isn’t a grammar book.
    You are right !!

  • Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    English has the largest vocabulary of language, perhaps because we have borrowed shamelessly from many others. (It got a great boost after 1066, when Anglo-Saxon and Norman dictionaries were shuffled together. In contrast to the French, who have armed guards standing at the lexicon’s doors.)

    The Eskimos may have 27 words for “snow”, but we have at least 27 for almost everything, each one with a slightly different meaning.

    The OED would be the best place to look – I don’t have one at hand.

    I did find another unimpeachable source:

    The Catholic Encyclopedia

    Most dictionary definitions have for certitude, “the state or feeling of being certain” – which leads to the conclusion that they are different animals.

    I doubt we’d see “a certain certitude” in print, but if I did, that would be most enjoyable.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia (edition of 1920 or thereabouts) has more about it than you might want to hear. The short version seems to be

    “It is worthy of notice, as regards the use of English terms, that Newman reserves the term certitude for the state of mind, and employs the word certainty to describe the condition of the evidence of a proposition.”

    “The word certitude indicates both a state of mind and a quality of a proposition, according as we say, “I am certain”, or, “It is certain”.”

    Here’s a quote that comes down in your favor:

    “Certitude is such assent to the truth of a proposition as excludes all real doubt.”

    Giselle may not KNOW, but she has no DOUBT.

    “… indignant of my use of a ‘bigger’ word than necessary …”

    I agree. Eschew obfuscation.

    Stefi really understands it.

    Now let’s take on the case of the “bigger word” ‘remarked’. Surely Daniela could have ‘said’.

    It is this way that novels die the death of a thousand [editorial] cuts.
    Mike Zorn recently posted..A New Measurement System

  • Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Stefi and Mike. The two authorities (whom I know) on language have truly vindicated me. 🙂

    As for ‘remark’ vs. ‘said.’ Hehehehe. To remark is not quite the same as to say. I’d say a lawyer such as Daniela would certainly (I say this with certain certitude) remark, not simply say. But… let’s not go there anymore. 🙂 ‘Nuf said (or stated, or remarked, or postulated, or pontificated, or… whatever.) I must quit while I’m ahead here.

  • Posted April 4, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    @ Mike.

    Stefania left a comment for you in answer to your post, thanking you for reading her comment and also agreeing with you in all that you said, etc. But, I have no idea what I did–I was working in the background as the administrator of the site–and somehow I deep-sixed it, it just went ‘poof’! So… she was glad that you agreed with her. Sorry… I’ve been known to delete EVERYTHING in one big bang. I think this is how the Big Bang started.

  • stefania
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    The Death of Rafael. Review
    I have read this book with a great interest. I have understood fom the beginning that it isn’t another book about the Holocaust even the shadow of the most terrible event of the hisory is planning above the whole story. First of all I would like to talk about the structure of the book. It isn’t a linear structure; the chapters are dated and places are indicated but not year after year, nor month after month. The writer used the flashbacks ina special order, according the events. It makes the story to be interesting and so the readres can’t leave it before the end. The writer has described the placs in an excellent manner, using a rich vocabulary adapted to each situation. These descriptions are the scenery of the tragedy. After the characters had been created by the writer, they acted, each one in his own manner.However I felt between the lines the presence of the writer, her feelings or thoughts. It is known that so did all the great writers. It is used to remind Flaubert’s famous words: Emma- it’s me”
    The three main characters, Giselle,Daniela and Francesco are the victims, each one in his own way, of the tragedy.The mother who lost her child, the young woman who lost her childhood and youth and the son who grew up in a false identity that he can’t change anymore. There is no fate or prediction of fortune tellers even if Giselle believes in. The tragedy is the direct consequence of the Holocaust and of course of the War..Most of the book written about these events , have told about what happened at that time. The Death of Rafael is more a book about the life after the events with returns to the tragical past. The shadow of those evnts is still planning even above the third generation. There is no happy end in this book. It’s may be a peaceful end and also hopeful for Daniela and Francesco who have found each other and will try to recompose a family. They will try to find a way to live with the past but to start a new life. Francesco will continue his life as a catholic cardinal but without hiding his origins. It’s possible! About the othes characters I would like to write some lines about the Count Egon von Klaussen.He isn’t a positive character. The writer by creating him didn’t try to rehabilitate him by the fact that he didn’t kill the baby who had found.Von klaussen saved the baby for himself, for his loved wife.It wasn’t an act to save a ” Jewish child” as he said to his friend Zeller. He was a German warrior who fought for his Fuhrer and when he saw his country in danger to be destroyed, especially by the Russians, he took part in the failed conspiration in 1944. At that time exactlu began the deportation of the Hungarian Jews but no one has tried to stop it. The writer decsribed thisd character as he really was.As I hav said at the beginning of this short comment( I could write more!)I appreciated how the writer has composed the book and created her characters, no stereotypes and no cliches in this book. We, the readers are taken to the end of the books without trying to stop the reading. I think readers who like good books will agree with me.
    Stefania Berczeller

  • Posted May 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    [This is an eMail I sent to the web address a few weeks ago, but which fell through the cracks.]

    I’m about halfway through “Rafael”. Egon von Klaussen is indeed a tragic character. As is Miron – his fall from wealth and power to salesman certainly parallels many another European immigrant.

    I found that 11 of the officers in the July 20 plot held the Knight’s Cross. After that, the leader decreed that only he could give out any more.

    I second Stefania’s comment about the writing. The descriptions are quite good – especially (as far as I’ve gotten) the opening of the Cardenas section, describing the pampas.

    I think I’ll have to diagram the book, to keep track of the timelines and the characters.

    I came across a review of a book that might interest you:

    “Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech That was Never Made”, by Emma Fattorini

    The reviews there tell just about everything about the book.

    The review I read elsewhere says

    “The book is a political biography of Pope Pius XI and does not cover events beyond his death in 1939. It does, however, provide great insight into Pius XI’s pontificate and contributes to our understanding of the troubled question of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.”

    Fattorini worked from the “recently opened Vatican Archives”, including papers of Cardinal Pacelli – who served as a moderating influence on Pius XI.

    Mike Zorn
    Sigma Xi

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