Writers collect vocabulary words like tourists collect souvenirs, and believe it or not, words can serve the same purpose. I still remember the first time I encountered evocative words like ‘senescence’, ‘hoary’, and ‘sanguine’. Somehow they struck a chord in me, and I immediately knew I wanted to add them to my collection. When I use them now it’s sort of like wearing a souvenir t-shirt from some exotic place I’ve visited. Just imagine if they came with witty slogans like, “I read Thoreau and all I got was this lousy t-shirt word.” Or, “I just read James Joyce and now my sentences won’t stop running . . .” And of course, I have to constantly fight the urge to drop an occasional ‘star-crossed’ into my writing because it’s so obviously poached from Shakespeare it makes other writers wince.
Part of the fun of cultivating a rarefied vocabulary is the ever-expanding potential to apply the perfect word to a nuanced situation. Of course, truly encapsulating moods and relationships in words is a skill, requiring an elegant balance of memory and emotional acuity. You not only need the word in your mental library, you also need to understand when, where, and how to pull it off the shelf.
That said, I’d like to offer a few words of caution about profligate magniloquence, for precisely the reason you probably paused in the middle of this sentence. The average reader isn’t likely to know the meaning of abstruse terms like ‘profligate’, ‘magniloquence’, ‘inchoate’, or ‘crepuscular’. And I know how frustrated I still get whenever I have to stop reading something in order to Google a bit of esoteric arcanum. However, because recondite words are as fun for writers to use as vacation photos are to show at dinner parties, I’m not advocating a lexical moratorium. Instead, I recommend simply presenting those words with enough context for readers to infer the writer’s intention.
For example, I once stumbled across the following sentence in the middle of a novel. “Bill had always been laconic.” I immediately stopped reading in order to deliver a brief, imaginary monologue to the author. Bill had always been laconic, huh? No shit. Well, that’s great, and I’m very happy for Bill. Unfortunately I didn’t learn a damn thing about him from that sentence because I have no idea what the hell ‘laconic’ means, dickhead! You know what? I hope your brother stole your Halloween candy a lot when you were a kid.
For an even more egregious example, I once had to put a book down in order to look up the word ‘caul’ after the author spent two full pages revealing that all male members of the main character’s ancestry had been born with one, and that the main character himself kept his own in a little leather pouch. However, as the author rambled through paragraph after paragraph about the superstitious significance of cauls, I could only think: Hey, this is really interesting, and for all I know it may even be crucial to the plot, but I just can’t help wondering WHAT THE FUCK IS A CAUL, asshole?
In case you don’t know, a caul is the membrane surrounding the amniotic fluid, part of which sometimes covers a baby’s head at birth. You might also notice that definition only took up one quick, painless sentence, and therefore shouldn’t have been too hard to slip into two rambling pages about cauls being associated with psychic ability in the main character’s cryptic family history. The fact that it wasn’t left me with such a sour impression of the offending author that I’ve consciously avoided his work ever since.
Which brings us to my main point: there’s a very pragmatic reason to avoid vocabulary abuse. The more big words a reader trips over in your writing, the less likely that reader will be to pick up anything else you’ve written. And if you happen to be in the business of selling books – like an author perhaps – then that’s a serious concern!
As I mentioned, when I dole out a highfalutin word that I suspect the average reader might not know, I try to pad the context with hints about that word’s meaning (this article being an obvious exception, for ironic purposes). Referring back to the first example above, if I happened to find myself absolutely committed to the notion of describing Bill as laconic, then I’d do so more like this: “Bill had always been laconic, so his reply was characteristically brief.”
While that might not rate as silver-tongued poetry (perceptions may vary), at least it won’t send the reader fumbling for a dictionary. Oh, I get it, Bill doesn’t say much. Fine. Now I can move on with the damn story. For me, padding jawbreaker vocabulary words with context is like patching a pothole on the highway so it won’t send people careening off the road. It’s just the polite, considerate thing to do.
Now, before I wrap up this article, I’d like to share one last anecdote about words. This one involves the word ‘semblably’. If you don’t recognize that word, don’t feel bad. You probably had the same reaction to it I did the first time I heard it. It sounds like one of those mismatched abomination words like ‘supposably’ or ‘irregardless’ – both of which should be extirpated with torches and lynch mobs, by the way (seriously, feel free to smack anyone you catch using them, and I mean hard).
Well, once upon a time, a friend and fellow English major I knew in college flourished the word ‘semblably’ in a term paper. When he turned in said paper, his professor attacked the hapless word with red ink and the condescending margin note, “THIS ISN’T A REAL WORD!!!” Unfortunately for the professor, ‘semblably’ actually is a real word, derived from semblable, which is the root of more familiar words like semblance and resembling. It can be used – by erudite logophiles, apparently – to indicate similarity or resemblance.
In response to his professor’s churlishness, my friend therefore delivered an astute rebuttal. First, he photocopied the dictionary page containing the definition of ‘semblably’. Then he carefully highlighted the definition with enough neon yellow to leave it nearly luminescent. The next day, he stapled the highlighted photocopy to the front of his term paper, marched up to the professor’s desk and, without so much as a word of explanation, brazenly turned the paper back in. For the rest of that day, I do believe he needed a wheelbarrow to cart around his colossally ponderous balls.
So, in conclusion, be careful with words. It may be impossible to make an exact count, but the experts say English is bloated with almost a quarter million of them. Meanwhile, the average person is only familiar with a fraction of that sprawling linguistic geography. Again, it’s hard to get precise, but estimates suggest any given individual’s vocabulary is stocked with a paltry range of only 35,000 to 75,000 words. That means the odds of you encountering unfamiliar words on your literary travails are pretty damn high, so be mindful of your readers and make sure to choose your words wisely!
This semi-satirical post was written by Ken Floro, III, who was kind enough to be the first guest blogger on my growing site. If you enjoyed this post, Ken would love it if you would hop over and check out his website at http://southsidecavaliers.com/, where you can find other musings on the power (or lack thereof) of words. Ken lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife and daughter, has spent much of his adult life writing, and his books are available for purchase on Amazon in both print and e-book format. You can follow him @SouthSideKen on Twitter.