The English language encompasses over a million words. Growing up we are taught that to improve our vocabulary we should read more. As an adult I still run into words now and then that are unfamiliar. Either by the power of Google or context clues I discover the meaning and attempt to eek out space in the “words” section of my brain’s hard drive. If I manage to shuttle said word from short-term into long-term memory without a physical memory dump, I have achieved an increased lexicon.
As a scientist I get to use long chemical or biological terms, but these belong to a specialized vocabulary. They do not elicit the same sense of satisfaction as finding that perfect word with all the proper nuances to convey precisely what you wish to say. Once in a great while I see a science editorial or review that doesn’t read like a boring list of redundant science-speak, but unfortunately, that’s rather what is expected. After all there’s only so many ways one can clearly state that you grew cell line A on flask type B without sounding ridiculous.
In fiction, the writer has the freedom to use the entire palette to create his or her masterpiece, or at least one would think. Over the past few years the advice I have heard over and over again is to use simple vocabulary. For the most part, my 64 crayon box gets the job done, but every once in a while there’s a color from the 96 set or maybe even the 152 ultimate collection that adds the hue I’m looking for.
I imagine with the dawn of the digital era and a thesaurus at writers’ fingertips, a few too many of them gave Shift+F7 chronic fatigue. There is a difference between regurgitating a thesaurus and picking the crayon of just the right color. Once upon a time writers assumed their audience possessed intelligence. Now, the subtext of the “simple words” advice is two-fold:
1) We think you looked this up b/c we don’t know what it means and don’t feel like googling it.
2) We aren’t sure the audience will know what _____ word means.
What happened to reading being a means to educate, even when that reading was for entertainment? What happened to reading expanding the mind? As a kid, when I read the classics, I could rarely go more than a page without having to use context clues or a dictionary to decipher a word’s meaning. We have endless information at our fingertips, and yet anything out of the ordinary gets flagged as “a five-dollar word”. As far as I’m aware, all e-readers have built in dictionaries. Are we destined for inane words like twerk and googling (Yes, I know I used it.) to fill our dictionaries and communal vocabularies to the detriment of other words? Adding new words need not kill off old words. I can use the word “google” without suddenly forgetting what “discombobulate”.
My stories are written to entertain. Some may have deeper meanings for readers to find if they wish, but at the end of the day I simply want to share these stories, and I think I owe it to you, my readers, not to settle for using a dollar store vocabulary when I can share words of a higher quality.
Readers, editor, and writers, share your opinions in the comments!
*This post is indicative of my writing style and vocabulary, so you be the judge. If you’re of a mind, click over and pick up a copy of my short story “What Autumn Leaves” or one of my novels available on Amazon.