Word Snobs, Mass Murderers, and Prestidigitation

Today I want to talk about…words. This entry is partially inspired and in response to R.S. Guthrie’s post last week about being a “word snob“. Let me note UP FRONT that I’m not downing what Rob is saying; in fact, I agree, and he puts it well in the comments:

I enjoy learning new words and eloquent language — when written by a master. If a novice uses a word too big for their writing, it’ll tear the piece apart quicker than you can SAY ” thesaurus”. And I do think as writers we should push ourselves. I always read above my skill level. How else do I become better myself?

So this post is not a shot at Rob in any way, shape, or form.

Now, that out of the way. I have recently read some reviews of intelligent novels wherein otherwise sane reviewers complain about writers using “big words” in their writing as a means of “showing off” and that they’re better than others. In particular, I’m thinking of the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, a  heart-wrenching story about the mother of a mass murdering teenager.  After watching the movie, I checked out the book’s Goodreads page to see if it was worth worth my time. I saw a lot of five star reviews – a good sign for a mass market publication – but I also saw some one star reviews. As I usually do, I checked the one-star reviews first, as they’re far more instructive than the glowing reviews. I’ll talk about that in my post The One Star Review Method in the near future.

No less than three of the one-star reviews complained about what I said above: the writer was showing off how well she could use her thesaurus, and/or was showing off that she had a better vocabulary than everyone else.

I have a real visceral reaction to such claims because…well, look. I’ve always had a big vocabulary, even back during elementary school. It’s just a side effect of reading so much, and of course those words slipped out in my everyday speech. It had nothing to do with showing off how smart I was or feeling superior. It’s just that, sometimes, words have a more precise meaning that can save you from having to talk around in circles. It felt like a better way to express myself, but I was inevitably told by peers that I was showing off with those big words – did I think I was smarter than them?

I don’t think that people who say such things are dumb; in fact, I know some of those people were quite intelligent. Insecure? That’s a possibility, but I’m not here to play armchair psychologist;  I just wanted to let you know where I’m coming from when I felt compelled to react to such claims. Now, then. I‘m here to talk about reading and writing and all those good, fun language tricks that writers love so much. Sometimes, a word is just a better way to express yourself.

Let’s start by picking on Rob, with his example of surfeit. Yes, the dictionary definition of the word is excessive, but there are other definitions that offer some context on the appropriate usage of the word:

excess or overindulgence in eating or drinking.
an uncomfortably full or crapulous feeling due to excessive eating or drinking.
general disgust caused by excess or satiety.
By the way, the word crapulous will never get old. Anyway, surfeit is used in a very different context from the vanilla word excessive or even from the synonym plethora. Just the pronunciation evokes a different sense; try saying the two out loud and you get an idea of what I’m saying. I’m actually impressed, though, that Thesaurus.com beat me to what I had planned to say about the two, as I didn’t realize the site made such differentiation:
plethora  is too many of a good or bad thing and surfeit  is too much of a good thing
I think you see what I’m trying to say here; you could expend an entire sentence describing the excessive amount of information that a character has hoarded (and there are times when this is quite appropriate), or you could talk about the character’s surfeit of information and move on. As an added bonus, just using the word surfeit gives you some insight to the character’s view of information.

Let’s talk about Kevin. The story is written in the form of letters to the narrator’s husband. The protagonist is a celebrated travel writer; of course she’s going to use larger words, and while I haven’t read the book, I have a strong suspicion (and some reviewers back me on this) that the elaborate language is a method to make her seem distant, alien, and cold. Imagine the difference between her language and the language of a high school dropout. If you have a high school dropout using words like prestidigitation, you’d better establish why he or she knows and uses that word, as a character’s station suggests his or her vocabulary and some behavioral aspects.

I’ll admit that some writers may use these words to show off, but the unspoken assertion in Rob’s statement up there is that it’s often new or inexperienced writers that do so – and it sticks out. I agree. I just don’t think it does writing, reading, or language in general any sort of service to toss those words out and assume that the person using them is a show-off.

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  1. interesting post, Jonathon. With the general dumbing down of our society I think it behooves us as writers to use language to full advantage…a lot of times when I’m writing, the simple word for something won’t come to me…so I put down the one that does even if it’s an uncommon one…I began reading early and was reading above my level at a very young age–I had to puzzle out the meanings of words by their context…do we all just want to read comics or can we deal with learning as we read?

    • Jonathan D Allen

      That’s exactly my feeling on the subject. I’m always inspired, however, when I meet someone who recognizes the limitations of their vocabulary and wants to improve it. That’s just awesome.

  2. I LOVE words.
    So does my son.
    There have been a few books I needed a dictionay to read–and I loved that too–although it took a loooong time to get through. (Try getting through WICKED–the book that the play is based…wow.)
    I have no problem with big words, my issue is when authors try to use more words than they need and it ends up sounding fake or just plain old too long.
    Thanks Jonathan 🙂 Love this.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Hah, yeah, I read Wicked not too long ago, that did have some interesting words in it, didn’t it? Definitely agree with you about authors using more words than they need and/or incorrectly using them. Drives me crazy, but I suppose it’s part of the learning process.

  3. “You don’t need a dictionary to read Hemingway.”

  4. Great post, Jonathan (as usual). The funny thing about my post is that I garnered two reactions that I didn’t anticipate (and they seemed to far outweigh what I thought was the main point of my article — that new writers should not get caught in the trap of throwing in words bigger than their writing thinking THAT will elevate the quality thereof):

    1. That I have a small vocabulary and am implying it is I who want to use small words because I must look everything else up.
    2. That big words should never (or rarely) be used, and that I implied there is no eloquence to such capacious language.

    Far from it on both counts. Let me stress YOU did not imply these things; I got the sense in the comments on my blog that some readers inferred this (unintentional) disinformation and felt like clearing my name here. 😉

    Anyway, as with all good conversation, there are more sides than a dodecahedron. Ya just can’t make everyone happy. You’re lucky if it’s 10%. 😉

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thanks, Rob. Yeah I re-read my first draft and actually realized that it could be misconstrued as saying those two things so I wanted to make sure your stance was crystal clear, especially since I think we’re 99.9% in agreement. I definitely got that sense from your comments, and I think I can see why someone would get that knee-jerk reaction, but you clarified your position quite well in the comments. That’s why it’s important to read the comments before posting, for sure!

  5. If a fiction author uses too many “big words” too close together, then he is going to lose his audience. Literally and figuratively. Like I got lost reading Rob’s last comment (heh). I know what the individual words mean, but trying to put together the meaning of the passage is work. I don’t read fiction because I want to work more.

    On the other hand, I love seeing the occasional big word. If a writer is good, he/she can write in such a way as to make the meaning of the sentence clear even if the reader isn’t sure of the meaning of the big word. This is how I learned some of my big words and I am grateful to the authors who used them.

    If we don’t occasionally stretch the reader’s limits, our cultural vocabulary will shrink.

    (By the way, I once got told by a critique partner that pirouette was a big word and I shouldn’t use it. He didn’t know what it meant. He was unfamiliar with the word “loom,” too. This was a pretty good writer, too. I guess “big word” is in the eye of the beholder.)

    • That’s what I was going to say, Marie. I love running across the occasional big word, but if it’s a pretty rare word, the average reader should be able to cipher it out based on context clues. It kind of frustrates me when I can’t do that because then I find myself doing one of the two things I tell my students I don’t want them to have to do when they’re reading and run into a word they don’t know (which is why I heavily emphasize context clues):
      1- skipping the word, or
      2- having to get a dictionary.

      Anything that breaks the flow of a story and takes the reader out of the story is a bad thing in my opinion. Perhaps the “Kevin” author genuinely knew all the words she used, and maybe she even uses them in her every day life, but if that’s the case, I think a beta reader or editor should’ve picked up on the fact that she might be isolating, and as you mentioned, losing, her readers.


      • Jonathan D Allen

        Well, let’s be clear, “Kevin” was a very successful novel by any metric – sales, critical reception, and lasting impact, so I don’t think losing readers was a real danger. The reviews that I cited were pretty extreme outliers, they just amused me greatly when compared to the critical acclaim that the novel was receiving otherwise. But yes, context is very important.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Well, yeah. There has to be a balance. And it’s interesting that you made the point about “big word” being in the eye of the beholder – that was actually a segment that cut out of this post because it was getting too long. That’s a very valid point, and I think what was going on with “Kevin”.

  6. Someone who has known my writing for years congratulated me on my ‘lowered diction’ in my recent work. It felt a little like a slam, but I realized that he was right: my earlier writing was marked by a surfeit of words – sometimes ‘big,’ sometimes not. As Rob points out, it was a trap I fell into as a new writer; just because I knew a word, I wanted to use it. In a way, I was showing off how smart I was, how clever.There is a skill to choosing the correct word, and that comes with practice. I still get dings from beta readers about some vocabulary choices, but I make them consciously now, rather than just to make myself feel more like a Real Writer.

    And, yes, crapulous will never get old!


    PS – Notice how I used surfeit, hmm? How clever, how smart! 😉

    • Interesting that you mention this, Aniko. I actually noticed a few points in Stolen Climates where that jumped out at me. Not enough that I would’ve remembered to mention it in a review, but when you brought it up, it reminded me. It was a little different for you, though (and I think this is why I let it go). When I noticed you were doing it was when you tended to get almost prose-esque with your writing. You would be going along with concrete narration, and then you would get a little abstract, and it was in these moments that I noticed a few words that I had to piece together. The good news (as I hinted to in my response to Marie’s comment) was that I was usually able to figure them out based on context clues.

      So your usage was a little different than when an author uses it and it doesn’t match a character’s voice. Perhaps for you it was more of it seeming like the author coming through in the story. Again, not something a writer wants to do, but I think perhaps a little more acceptable? I dunno’. Curious what others think on that matter.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard “crapulous.” Now, “craptastic,” on the the other hand…


    • Jonathan D Allen

      Sometimes I think that the vocabulary we use also says something about our influences, and it’s difficult to really separate that out, especially when it becomes such an ingrained part of our style. I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly chosen a “big” word, but they definitely pour out of me when I’m in the Flow. When it comes to that, I guess maybe it’s a question of priority: do you want to make it more accessible, or remain true to your vision for the story?

  7. Reason number 821 why I love my ereader. Built-in dictionary! Don’t know a word? Touch it, and the meaning pops up.

    :::::hugs Nook tightly for a moment, goes back to reading::::::

  8. I thought of an addition to my earlier comment…I think we need to be true to our characters–if they are high-brow then they’re going to use ‘big’ words…their vocabulary makes them unique and differentiates them from each other…so maybe we should ask ourselves…”would this character speak this way?”

    • Jonathan D Allen

      That’s what I was trying to say in this post. Sometimes as readers I think we get hung up on writing style as indicating something about the author when it’s actually a natural outcome of using the character’s viewpoint as a touchstone. Sometimes that calls for big words, sometimes it calls for lots of cursing, sometimes it calls for loaded imagery.

  9. What a great post.
    Two things – the words must fit the story and they must sound like they’d actually be spoken by the particular character doing the speaking.
    I guess one more thing – my favorite professor in college taught this: Never use a fifty cent word when a ten cent word will suffice.

  10. Discombobulated. That’s my most favouritest word ever. And I managed to fit it into a story. Nobody’s complained. Not yet, anyway. 🙂

  11. I loved the book “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. I never thought the language was a problem; in fact, it gave the narrator a voice that really painted a picture of her. She was highly educated and well-travelled, but, more than that, she needed to precisely dissect what had happened. It was almost like she was carefully performing the surgical removal of a malignant tumor so that she could study it more closely.

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