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.
plethora is too many of a good or bad thing and surfeit is too much of a good thing
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.