I’m a vocabulary nut. I admit it. I love words. Little words, big words, unusual words, archaic words. Ever since high school, it’s been my practice to keep a piece of paper in the front of the book I’m reading, so I can mark down unfamiliar words and look them up the next day. Whenever I look up a word, I underline it, and these days, if you were to flip through my battered Random House Dictionary of the English Language, you’d be hard pressed to find a page that didn’t have three or four words underlined.
Not surprisingly, this obsession overflows into my writing. I love being able to share a word that perfectly describes something. I’m ecstatic when a particular word absolutely nails what I’m trying to say. But what happens when an author’s audience isn’t as interested in their vocabulary as the author is in his?
It’s a sad fact that modern society is no longer as literate as it once was—and most authors don’t seem to be doing a lot to raise the bar. Literary agent Noah Lukeman, author of the popular The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, shares the lamentation:
…extended vocabulary, if properly used, is impressive. It is rare to come across unusual words in manuscripts these days. It is as if all of today’s writers were working from a high school-level vocabulary—and writers who do use unusual words more often than not misuse them.The arguments against using large and possibly unfamiliar words include the idea that an author must match his writing to his readers’ level. If his readers aren’t likely to recognize a word, then its usage will only serve to confuse the reader and possibly even alienate him. Plus, there’s always the risk of committing the cardinal sin of drawing the reader’s attention away from the story to the author himself. Some people claim that the use of large words is a cheap gimmick by the author that says, in essence, “Look at me! Look how smart I am!” These arguments certainly aren’t without merit.
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” British satirist George Orwell outlined a “remedy of six rules” to combat what he considered the “ugly and inaccurate” writing of the day. In the light of the solid advice of Rule #3 that one should “never use a long word where a short will do,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a long, specific word beats the pants off a short, general word any day of the week.
But what if the long word isn’t necessarily going to be familiar to the reading public? What’s a writer to do? Do we dumb down our writing, simplify it, cut out the beauty and precision of millennia of linguistic evolution—and with every deletion risk the permanent maiming of our language? Or do we stretch ourselves to embrace the endless possibilities lurking in our dictionaries? Award-winning non-fiction author Michael Perry commented that:
If the word is beautiful, unusual, attractive, it sounds cool, it’s got great rhythm—and, by the way, it means exactly what you mean to say—why shouldn’t you use it? Why in this day and age should we be apologizing for keeping these words alive? We’re killin’ ‘em. We’re doing away with them as fast as we can…. It’s not about being snobby. It’s about being excited about language.A book is a contract between writer and reader. The writer bears the responsibility to do his best to make his work legible and precise; but readers also bear a responsibility: to rise to the book’s intellectual challenge. Although books are, all too often, relegated to mere entertainment, they are also an endless source of education. And, as such, the reader should expect to be lifted above himself in some way. As writers, we should strive to lift the reader. But, like any good teacher, we must also make sense. We must find the balance between asking a reader to grow—and losing him completely. We’re all striving toward that balance. Here’s to reaching it!
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Story by K.M. Weiland