Monday 12 December 2016

Le mot juste.

I chose these words at random to get a spread that ran from ones I thought everyone would know to ones I thought few people would know. Then I ran a POLL to see how many of my readers and the people I could reach on social media did know them.

With 378 people responding these are the answers:

Pellucid - 11%
Umber - 50%
Cogent - 53%
Catharsis - 78%
Sinuous - 79%
Azure- 82%
Allude - 83%
Hyperbole - 86%
Elude - 86%
Bemuse - 87%

11% of respondents felt able to explain what 'pellucid' means to another person.
87% of respondents felt able to explain what 'bemuse' means to another person.

I suspect these figures would go down a bit if you actually got people to then explain the words (& required that they be broadly correct). I suspect that the figures would go up when the words were read in context.

They rode beneath an azure sky.
"<insert cogent argument>" He made a very cogent argument.

So, why did I do it?

Well, for starters, I was genuinely quite interested in the answers. But really I wanted to write a blog post about language, writing, and vocabulary.

Many of us have read an inexperienced writer try to lend their work some kind of authority or gravitas by raiding the thesaurus and replacing perfectly good $1 words with $50 words that many people haven't heard before and just feel inappropriate. Joey shows how this happens. On the other hand many modern readers will pick up the work of a literary giant of the 20th century and set it down soon after saying something like "reads as if they swallowed a thesaurus".

Why, the reader asks, must the writer use highfalutin words when a simple alternative is available. Are they just trying to sound brainy?

Here's the thing. Although many words effectively mean the same thing, or overlap to the degree where a thesaurus suggests substituting one for the other, the real situation is more complex. Words carry baggage with them that doesn't make it onto the dictionary page. Each word brings with it a context, the rarer the word often the more specific that context. Certain words have associations with the class of people who might use them, be that class social, or relating to nationality, profession, geography or circumstance. The dictionary may claim a particular meaning for an adjective but perhaps its use in popular fiction associates it with pirates, or sex, or music ... and so when you reach for that adjective it doesn't just give the colour or texture of an object but paints in a mood and all manner of subtle associations that the writer can build on.

Words are hooks. Writers don't describe a scene minutely, they hook it out of your imagination using a minimum of words. The more precisely shaped these words are to the task the more efficient the process, the more impact per line. And that means using more than just the dictionary meaning.

But of course this process falls apart when the vocabulary of reader and writer diverge, or the baggage that the words carry for one is not the same for the other. In such situations you get the reader accusing the writer of hitting the thesaurus regardless of whether the words are chosen with accuracy or abandon.

I've used in my books all the words in the list given above with the exception of 'pellucid' and 'cogent'. My instinct was that these two are words which I share with too few of my readers to make them useful, and the poll seems to back that up.

I did find examples of those words in my writing file though, in something written by my eldest daughter. But she got a double first in English at Cambridge and a full scholarship to Harvard, and she's writing for an academic audience, choosing her tools to purpose.

So, in short, storytelling may be achieved using the simplest of words, and there is a great appetite for stories. But most who take to the keyboard in earnest have, or develop, a love of the language too and try to tell their stories with the best writing they can manage. That endeavor requires a delicate balancing of the language to the audience. If the writer and audience share broadly similar vocabularies and experience then that part of the exercise becomes effortless.

ers: 378


  1. Is it wrong to just use context to figure out a words meaning because I do all the time? When a story is in full flow I just want to carry on so I use what fits the story from my interpretation. Sorry if this is bad Mark but I have always been a lazy study 😉

    1. It's not wrong, but if you have to then the word adds nothing.

      However, it now has a context of its own and when you read it again it may carry some of that with it.

  2. And if I mispronounce or misspell if I've been listening, have I just created a new word and meaning? Better get out the thesaurus and a stapler 😁

  3. I agree that specific words can have different meanings to different audiences, though when describing I most liked your metaphors and sly witticisms.

  4. I'm in awe of your writing and storytelling skills.

    But since English is not my first language and for me a translated book means loosing too much of the feeling that the author is trying to create. My point is when the story is in full flow and my heart is racing, some thesaurus words make me pause and interrupt the flow.

    That being said, after looking up each word and expanding my knowledge each story and book is getting better and better.

  5. Ha, I said I didn't know Azure, thinking it was something weird, but I didn't realize it was just the color.

  6. This beautifully describes what elevates a good story to great storytelling. I do like to find the occasional stretch word in my reading I feel it helps to widen my perspective. (Yeah I googled pellucid. I am very clear now). Lol