This morning's Globe and Mail has a long article that writers should pay attention to: Vocabulary: Are we losing our lexicon? Excerpt:
In Chicago, in a downtown courtroom, lawyer Edward Greenspan won't let Conrad Black take the stand.
The problem is Mr. Black's fondness for whacking big words: tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective "braying"), planturous(fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes), to list just a few of his verbal smatterings. Mr. Greenspan fears the Lord's lingualism will turn off the jury.
Meanwhile in Toronto, at the Ryerson School of Journalism, Ivor Shapiro is teaching his class to write clearly. The decor is Early Modern Factory — flat window, false ceiling of black metal grille to make the room seem less cavernous, giant TV suspended in a corner like a moody spider.
"One has to tell students in journalism school to express themselves simply, because they have been taught in high school to use big words in an effort to impress their professors," Mr. Shapiro says.
I have actually used Conrad Black's writing as a horrible example for my business-writing students—a particular paragraph beginning "The desultory roundel," which baffles them by the second word and floors them by the third.
The point I'm trying to make with them is that in the workplace, at least, writers must keep their readers in mind. Anything that distracts from the message, and anything that makes the message harder to understand, is a hazard.
At the same time, I push my students to develop their vocabularies; as the Globe article notes, most students know very few words out of the 700,000 to a million in the English language.
Using simple words, I explain what I'm doing: They need to write simply and clearly, using words that everyone can understand. At the same time, they need big vocabularies if only to maintain their bullshit detectors in good working order.
Conrad Black isn't the only guy out to baffle his readers. Sesquipedalian diction can be tool of deception or outright bullying, a way of telling readers: "I'm smarter than you are, so shut up and do what I say."
But the Globe article also makes a point that I deliberately don't make to my students: Learning and using big or obscure words can be fun. Robert Heinlein used to say that he used the simplest possible English for his adult novels, but threw odd words into his juvenile novels because kids liked to chew on them. As one of his young readers, fifty-five years ago, I can confirm his wisdom.
Of course Heinlein didn't say "Hi, boys and girls—here's a fun new word coming up. You'll love it!" He just dropped it in our laps and let us wonder what it was.
So I hope my students will likewise discover that it feels pretty good to learn and use a new word, and to bat it around in play.
How does this principle apply in our own fiction?
Well, style is itself a storytelling device. Huckleberry Finn, speaking like a typical uneducated Missouri boy, is believable. If he'd adopted the highflown rhetoric of 19th-century genteel fiction, he'd be as forgotten as hundreds of 19th-century genteel novelists.
Much modern mainstream fiction has "gone genteel" again: When I read a review that praises the author's lush, high-calorie prose, I prefer to avoid the book. But I can see many cases where such prose might be absolutely essential—for example, in a first-person narrative by a person in love with ornate diction.
Such a character might be a Conrad Black, gushing strange words in a cloud of camouflaging ink, or a scholar drunk on rare words, or a specialist casually talking shop about medicine or law or high-energy physics.
We should be aware, though, that such rhetoric becomes a subject of the story, and can come under readers' scrutiny. Don Quixote became a figure of fun because he'd read too many medieval romances; logophiliacs and other demented scholars are also objects of satire.
Vocabulary poses other issues for fiction writers. Our choice of words can make a character or setting sound absolutely believable, or absolutely false. Orwell's Newspeak is supposed to suppress conscious thought in its users; it stirs us to higher consciousness of the Newspeak in our regular media.
In some cases, vocabulary can vary depending on the characters' backgrounds, and help convey a lot of information about them: education, class, age, and so on. The writer needs to understand what words are likely to be used by a Harvard grad (class of 1950) or an 18-year-old Idaho construction worker.
"The test of good writing," Hemingway said, "is how much good writing you can cut out of it." That is, you shouldn't use a word or phrase just because it sounds good; it also has to move the story ahead in some way.
Tolkien might seem to contradict this view: He even wrote poetry in The Lord of Rings in languages no one knew. Incomprehensible or not, those poems were (and are) still evocative of his imagined world; they make it more believable and therefore more enjoyable. And that's what every writer should try to do, using carefully chosen words to create a desired effect.