Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Words We Choose

   I like words. Tiny words and sesquipedalian words. Hoary words and nascent words. Repurposed words like ratchet (maybe a corruption of ‘wretched’...used pejoratively in the sentence ‘that girl is ratchet’); words that once were in but now aren’t so phat. Portmanteau words (á la Lewis Carol) like ginormous (which surprisingly dates back to 1948).
   But when writing stories I think it is best to keep it simple. The idea is to communicate and every time your reader needs to search he or she is taken out of the story. William Faulkner once said of Ernest Hemingway: “(Hemingway) has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” And Hemingway replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
   As Hemingway suggests, knowing the ‘ten-dollar words’ is something you would expect of a writer...after all, a writer reads a lot more than he or she writes, and a product of reading is a good vocabulary. But when it comes to word choice in your writing it’s not the time to be showing off your vocabulary prowess.
   I personally don’t think that less common words should be avoided altogether. There will be times when a particular word is the perfect fit and worth making a reader go to the dictionary. Even Hemingway made me pick up the dictionary at least a time or two.
   My biggest problem with those uncommon words is pronunciation. I’m a reader and when I look up words I am more interested in the definition than the phonetics. Unfortunately, I often make a fool of myself by mispronouncing a word.
   I think it might help to make poems in which a rhyme of the word I need to learn to pronounce is used. For example:

   He looked around as he pulled apart the brioche,
   and wondered if to spread jelly would be gauche.

   I had to cheat and use for that one (there isn’t a whole lot that rhymes with 'gauche' it turns out).
   Here is another:

   Abandoned with these manacles on me--
      My emotions flowed from
   Anger to fear to desperation and finally ennui.

   Feel free to share rhymes of your favorite uncommon words.
   If you are interested a fun look at English words and the language in general, I recommend Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (English and how it got that way). After you read that you might want to follow it up with Bryson’s Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.