Big Words ~ Little Words
Here’s something probably a little too deep on a weekday to ponder, but here goes. While we are busily creating our enchanting worlds on paper or on a computer, are we obligated to use only words to engage the average reader, and leave the 50 cent versions to the academics? The reason I’m bringing this up is because I’ve been told that I use too many big words when smaller ones would be sufficient. Cross my heart and kiss my elbow, I, like many of you, have adhered to that philosophy, or rule, or guideline–whatever it is–and avoided the use of those 50 centers like the plague, unless it’s a medical or technical term, and then I explain through the narrative or dialogue. I certainly don’t want to frustrate my readers, or make them feel like they have to drag out the old OED or dust off the Webster’s just to read my little mystery. How annoying. How cumbersome.
Okay, so I’m guilty as charged for fudging that just a wee bit. You know, taking a nip here and there, in this chapter or that one, savouring the beauties like sipping on a single malt whiskey, and feeling the glow of the word slide down my throat. Words, the dram of life. Sigh. Yes, my editor has been known to make a word suggestion if my hand is too heavy while indulging the word monger in me, and rightfully so. And, I am thankful, appreciative. She’s my conscience. She has the magic finger she can stick in the air and know which direction the wind is blowing and how hard. However, isn’t there just a snippet of resentment nesting somewhere inside all of us that just wants to scream to the world, “You should know this word! Dadgumit! Buy a dictionary!”
We don’t want to be that person. You know the one; the condescending intellectual snob. You’ve seen them at parties, hanging out in coffee bars, and they use an excessive amount of beige in decorating. Those people use large words like toilet paper. How discombobulating. (See!) We should run from that kind of narcissism, and sprint toward clarity. Besides, readership would positively fall off a cliff.
There is a line we can waltz up to and not cross, kind of like the Neutral Zone in Star Trek between the Federation and the Klingons. We can hang out there in our starship, and gaze out at the stars, drinking in the majesty of the universe of words. Being a wordsmithy there are so many lovely words out there that actually send shudders of light through my brain, and trail down my spine in seizure-like spasms. Their beauty resonates in specifics, with scalpel-like slices of meaning. The little guy may be too general, easily misinterpreted, and it might draw the reader into a different direction. In a mystery, this could murder it. What to do? Compromise. Use the big guy when it matters, gently define it, don’t beat the reader over the head with a dictionary. Readers are there to have fun, and learn one or two things.
Rather than the Star Trek analogy, I could have used Babylon 5, another science fiction television show. (I love that show!) As an analogy, the term Hyperspace in that series is more specific to the word problem we face. In the series, Hyperspace is used to travel more quickly through vast portions of space, using jump gates. However, the down side is you must have a specific direction to make the appropriate gate in order to get out of Hyperspace, and on toward the area of the galaxy you want to travel. If you don’t you could die, drifting off into the vastness of Hyperspace, never to be seen or heard from again. The point is that big words must have purpose and direction to be used effectively. Let it roll out so the meaning can be divined from the context, and use them sparingly.
Don’t drift off into Hyperspace. I’d miss you. Really. May the Force be with you. Wait, isn’t that another scifi..
Cheri Vause, Writer/Novelist
The Night Shadow ~ Book Series