Monday, August 6, 2007


Part of the reason I write, and read for that matter, is because I love words. These made up things that respresent objects, feelings, thoughts and actions. We string letters together to make words and words together to form sentences and, next thing you know, we've created whole worlds that didn't exist before. Words, by their very nature, are evocative. They are powerful. And they can be hurtful and destructive.

I've written previously about finding exactly the right word. Ali suggested poetry as a means to really understanding and gaining expertise at that. I've heard other writers defend their use of extremely obscure words as wanting to use "the exact right word" to convey an idea.


When does "using exactly the right word" become "showing off"? In responding to a comment on a previous post, I used stentorian instead of saying loud, booming, etc. It's a word that came to mind as the right one, but subsequent comments point to it being unfamiliar (although those comments may have been teasing). So, should I have said "loud and commanding voice"?

Would coming across one or two words you weren't familiar with throw you out of a story? I'm not talking about fantasy or science fiction where there are usually new words made up by the author. But even there I guess it could get annoying. How do you, as a writer, find that balance?


Jenny said...

Nah, stentorian is a good word, Deb.

As to using 'big words' I suppose it's a matter of the story being told. A story about a professor will sound different than Huck Finn, for example.

Samuel Beckett, a heralded genius, (and I really enjoy his prose, by the way) requires a dictionary on hand...and sometimes the words aren't even in the dictionary I have. But I think it's the difference between using the word that's in your head (and if it's a big one, that's cool) and using a thesaurus when you want to sound smart. There's a difference.

Ali said...

Makes me think of a gal I go to school with, she's the kind of person who casually drops words like solipsistic (sp?) when she's talking.

I'm with Jenny on this - if it's in your head, you're probably okay. If you have to look it up before you can use it, you probably aren't.

Ali said...

An addendum - the difference being the tone/voice of the story, too. I remember one piece from a flash fiction class which was in 1st person from the persona of a high school dropout drug user. He sounded like an English major. I didn't really work.

Debbie said...

Of course, you're both right. I think the stories that have bothered me are ones where I suspect that the author had a stack of obscure word dictionaries next to the desk.

And the context is important, too. Using Ali's example of the dropout druggie, it could also be an important 'tell' about the character if he does talk like a college professor. Where did that vocabulary come from? One of John's stories comes to mind.

Good points, youse two.

-John said...

If you got it, flaunt it. I have a list of words I've read in places that I didn't know the meaning to, and all that's done is expand my vocabulary, never a bad thing. I love it when I drop a million dollar word in modern day discourse the meaning of which no one knows. It lets me know what kind of person someone is when they are willing to admit they don't know something and are doing something about by asking the meaning of said word. Fittingly, the one I get asked about the most is "esoteric", so it seems the meaning of esoteric is...still rather esoteric. I don't know if that is an example of irony or not, I think Alanis Morissette misused it one in that one song, and it's messed me up for life.

Camii said...

Another point on context -- if the obscure word is used where its meaning is easily ascertained (see, like I just did there), then I think it's okay to use it.

I've also had to look up words in books I've read. I really do enjoy finding out the meanings of words. Learning is good!