Long words

by Suw on November 18, 2010

I’ve never signed up to the belief that short words are in some way inherently better than long ones. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” But I always felt that he was being rather unfair to long words. Even the words used to describe their origins – Anglo Saxon and Latinate – are loaded with the very characteristics he says we are supposed to admire or avoid.

Yet you can’t always substitute the Anglo Saxon for the Latinate and retain exactly the same meaning. Take ‘build’, from the Anglo Saxon (i.e. Old English) verb byldan, and ‘construct’, from the Latin verb construere. They mean the same thing and are given as synonyms, but there are – to me, at least – subtle differences.

Constructing a house implies a methodical, replicable, approach with an emphasis on paying attention to detail. Building a house implies a more human, organic approach. Building a defence implies that the defendant is quite possibly innocent and just has to gather together the evidence to prove it. But constructing a defence implies artifice and calculation, qualities more likely found in a guilty defendant.

Which word is best to use is a matter of context. Which nuances most closely fit the scenario you are writing? What implications are you hoping to make? What sort of feeling do you wish to leave with the reader?

Simply avoiding Latinate words is far too simplistic. A good writer strives to use their understanding of implicit meaning to make choices as they write. But adhering slavishly to such rules robs work of its depth.

I’m personally much more sympathetic to the late Eric Thompson’s attitude to long words, described by his widow:

Phyllida [Law] says: “Once a lady wrote to him complaining that he used too many long words in The Magic Roundabout and how were children meant to understand them?

“He got out the Oxford English Dictionary and wrote back using all the longest and most difficult words he could find, like palimpsest and oxymoron, which sounds rude but isn’t.

“He held serious conversations with babies in prams because he said they had to start somewhere. They were not to be patronised because they were little and hadn’t lived as long as he had.”

If we, as authors, don’t use long words, how on earth will anyone (including us) learn them or become familiar with using them?

But there is, of course, another side. Long words – or archaic, obscure or exotic words – shouldn’t interrupt the flow of reading. There is nothing more annoying than being jolted out of a story and back to reality by a poorly chosen word.

If an unusual word is used properly, its context gives it the meaning that the reader may otherwise lack. That gives you the choice to gloss over the unknown word and carry on if you don’t want to hunt down the definition in a dictionary. If a story is compelling, then that’s usually what I do – get the gist of it from context and carry on reading. But use too many obscure words, or use them in a way that leaves their meaning opaque, and you can ruin the reading experience.

I’m driven to write this blog post by Dan Abnett’s Triumff, Her Majesty’s Hero, which suffers this exact problem. In just two pages, he uses 16 words which jarr for one reason or another.

  • galliards – from context, some sort of musical form. Dictionary says “a lively dance in triple time for two people, including complicated turns and steps.”
  • rondeaus – same context as above, and whilst at least I’ve heard of a rondeau (or rondeaux), I couldn’t tell you exactly what one is. Dictionary says, “a thirteen-line poem, divided into three stanzas of 5, 3, and 5 lines, with only two rhymes throughout and with the opening words of the first line used as a refrain at the end of the second and third stanzas.”
  • soused – I know this means ‘drunk’ from the context, but it’s hot on the heels of the previous two and quite jarring.
  • Chatterton-esque – no idea what he’s referring to
  • pinnace – something boat-related, from context, but no real idea what. Dictionary says, “a small boat, with sails or oars, forming part of the equipment of a warship or other large vessel.”
  • Hawkins – again, something boat-related, but no idea what, and my dictionary is unclear.
  • luggers – boat-related again. Dictionary says, “a small sailing ship with two or three masts and a lugsail on each.”
  • galleasse – boat-related, yet again. Dictionary doesn’t have a clue.
  • flota – understood this from context, but it’s the Spanish word from which we get diminutive ‘flotilla’. Given it’s not a widely used word, does it add anything to the narrative?
  • netherstock – something to do with clothing, particularly hosiery. Dictionary says ‘Quack quack oops’
  • canions – apparently they are patterned and again to do with clothing. Dictionary says nothing.
  • peascod – something maybe to do with fabric, or clothing. Dictionary getting a bit sullen now.
  • murray – not used as a name, but might refer to a type of fabric. Dictionary sulking in the corner.
  • armillary – ok, this is finally a cool one. Dictionary leaps to its feet, stretches its hand in the air and shouts, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ It then goes on to say, “a model of the celestial globe constructed from rings and hoops representing the equator, the tropics, and other celestial circles, and able to revolve on its axis.” I sort of knew that already, but it’s good to have the detail.
  • nantwich – I’m including this because it’s bloody annoying. It’s a play on the word ‘sandwich’ and is not only unnecessary, but not funny and not clever. By itself it might have been funny and clever, but not after such a slew of ridiculous words.
  • Couteau Suisse – Not a clue. Dictionary back to sulking. May have been referenced earlier in the book but I really cannot be bothered to look.

The problem Abnett has is that he uses strange words as a way of world-building. Philip Pullman does this too, and it’s no less annoying. Oh, and Bruce Sterling and William Gibson did it in The Difference Engine, only one of the reasons why that book is so horrendous.

Good world-building doesn’t rely on using obscure language, writing in extreme dialect, or using impenetrable jargon. In Abnett’s case, he’s trying to illustrate that, in his world, it’s 2010 and the sun has yet to set on the British Empire, currently ruled over by Her Divine Majesty, Queen Elizabeth XXX. He could have achieved that without all but one or two of the above words. Instead, his central conceit is, well, conceited. His vocabulary seems to be more about the author proving how deeply he has researched his topic and, therefore, how clever he is, than about improving the experience for the reader.

Terence Eden November 18, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I found much the same thing in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The work which really stood out to me was “zhargon” – which was, I presume, the original way of spelling “jargon”.

The odd smattering of contextually suitable words can really help enliven a text – but overused is just plain annoying.

A good example of where it’s done correctly is in Jasper Fforde’s work. Specifically The Eyre Affair and Shades of Grey. Both use the oddness of the language to introduce the reader to the bizarre mechanics of his universe.

Oh, totally disagree with you about The Difference Engine. I loved that book.

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