I am often fascinated with how some writers can so beautifully capture the essence of their creation (or part of) in a single word or phrase. It takes the sort of skill that a haiku poet can appreciate, condensing a complex set of ideas and concepts into a few syllables. I've recently been reading JV Jones' Sword of Shadows series, and after an initially dubious start (on my part, she is more than amply skilled a storyteller) the series has increased in surety and captivation book by book.
The main players in the series are the clans, a series of family groups that is loosely based on the Scottish clans of old but their own unique flavour. They are strong, robust and live life to the full. Theirs is an intricate culture, filled with nuances of honour and tradition that lock the clans into an uneasy balance of warfare and allegiance. They spring easily to battle and yet interrelations can be courteous and kind.
JV Jones uses a particular word, which forms part of the characters' lexicon, to describe the essence of this culture; bravery, honour, strength, steadfastness, dedication, boldness.
That word is 'jaw'.
To offer or have 'jaw' is a quintessential element of what it is to be 'clan'. It means all of the above. 'Jaw' is the summation of all the qualities admired within that society and yet it has its own unique meaning as well. A character with 'jaw' is to be admired for their qualities, for their daring and solidity of self.
JV Jones does not overuse the word either. It crops up at key points, emphasising the power of the trait with its sparing usage, embedding itself as a concept through rarity rather than commonality. It is, in all respects, a beautifully conceived and applied word, carrying with it a multitude of meanings and implications.
There are many examples of this sort of skill, some more obvious than the others.
In Iain M Bank's book Excession exists a race called the 'Affront', a name that so perfectly encapsulates their belligerence and self confidence. They are outspoken, ribald, genial, brash, dangerous and supremely arrogant.
The Malazan Marines in Steven Erikson's vast and epic ''Malazan Book of the Fallen' curse with the evocative "Hood's balls!", an exclamation of disgust, fear or alarm. Again, it perfectly reflects the nature of those pronouncing it, their cynicism and irreverence summed up just so; Hood being the God of Death, an entity feared by all.
There is a symbiotic relationship between words and the context in which they are used. Judicious care in creating something that, to writer and reader both, perfectly and naturally defines a concept or idea whilst still remaining in context can add another layer of meaning and reality to a story. People and their stories are multi-layered things, and simple words or phrases can describe or impart the feeling behind whole layers of reality; describing complex interlocking frameworks of ideas and beliefs into words as simple as 'zen', 'respect', 'tao' or 'jaw'.