To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

jonathan-simcoe https://unsplash.com/photos/GxnyOLTxCr8

In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

He starts off with the obvious, and yet so often forgotten.

Words are the tools of writers. Not having the best ones at your fingertips is like a mechanic not having the best tools in his toolbox; knowing words but not knowing how to used them is like a mechanic having the tools but not knowing what to do with them. If you are a serious writer, you have an obligation to never stop actively learning words.

Out come those flash cards and the word-hunt begins. Where to? (Not the first page of the OED, certainly!)

From now on, when you come across a word you don’t know in your reading (any reading), mark it, come back to it, …

I wholly subscribe to this idea—about a quarter of my book annotations are word-related. I also agree with his definition of what it means to really know a word.

To know a word, you should learn not only its definition but its pronunciation (and variations)—are you going to get up onstage and mispronounce the words you’ve written? To really know a word you should also know its past usage, if different, and its root, origin, history.

That sounds like an almost impossible task. One way to motivate such an effort is to flatter its eventual result.

As you extend your vocabulary, you’ll soon find yourself thinking in broader terms.

Words are the vehicles of thought. It terms of my façade analogy: even if you want to paint a convincing piece of scenery you need to feed your imagination plenty of ingredients. To make it more fun, I occasionally go asking silly questions like these:

  • Why does a Solomonic column resemble a liquorice twist?
  • Does a spandrel expand and is it related to spandex?
  • Do flying buttresses push up buildings with wings?
  • How come an archivolt is an arched vault and not a playful unit of imaginary electric potential?
  • Does spotting a quoin on a building mean you’ve found a bit of change?
  • Why is an exedra a sitting place and not one of the polyhedra?
  • Are lance windows useful for jousting or opening up boils?
  • How come a machicolation is designed to crush the neck but isn’t etymologically related to masochism (or the breakneck speed of planes)?
  • If an oriel is an upper room, is it too prim to write about an oriole with an aureole eating Oreos in an oriel? (Say no.)

Neo-gothic oriel window on Bradford City Hall by John Illingworth, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ultimately, all word-learning efforts cluster around that quest for the ideal crisp expression.

Simplicity, as in other elements of writing, still reigns supreme: extended vocabulary is not synonymous with extend-syllable words. On the contrary, the writer who holds the dictionary in his head will often opt for a word of surprising brevity.

Every path to brevity is circumlocutory. Better get started.

(But not every circumlocutory path leads to brevity.)

8 responses

  1. Solomonic columns and liquorice twists look like each other because things like that are in our dna. Maybe archivolt is an ancient equivalent of an Ellis Island Misspelling. Maybe we should rest in an exedra while the Excedrin take effect? Perhaps I will need that kind of painkiller while you write about the oriole.

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