Here’s the topic of the day: Big words.
What do you think about an author using big words in a novel? You know the $20 dollar words. Wasn’t it E.B. White (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style) who said something like avoid pretentiousness in using the $20 word when a ten cent word could do the job?
As a reader, do you like big words? Do they thrill you? Do you eagerly reach for a dictionary or thesaurus to make sure that you understand the meaning of a word? Does it excite you to add to your vocabulary and do you walk around for a week or so trying that word on for size? Is reading a novel partly to educate, or is it only to entertain? As a reader, do big words jar you out of the flow of the story?
In our recent book club we read a novel set in the backwoods in the deep south of Georgia. It was a contemporary novel. The characters were quirky, mostly educated, some with tertiary degrees, but living for and loving the land. I won’t mention the book under discussion, because I didn’t care for it for a number of reasons. And most of those were personal taste, personal reasons. It was highly recommended literary fiction, and it had some sections of gorgeous prose. My main gripe with the novel was it seemed more like a series of vignettes, or character studies, and lacked the required smoothness in transitions from one chapter to another, yet it was marketed as a novel. It was hard to figure out whose story it was as there was not one protagonist but many. And there was no antagonist. The thing that linked the chapters was the understanding that each character was a neighbor in this small community.
The big words were my second gripe. Who in contemporary America walks around saying salubrious? I looked it up in the American Heritage College Dictionary and it was not listed. Sigh. I got up went to the other room, found the Webster’s dictionary. The meaning: promoting health or welfare; wholesome. We discussed this word choice, and many others, in book club and one of my friends sat quietly in a corner mumbling, salubrious, laborious, over and over. I couldn’t get the two words out of my head for days. : )
There are three ex-English teachers in our group of twelve. Only one bookclub member really liked the book. The rest of us liked the writing, not the story. Some readers never finished the book. So what do you think? Do you choose big words or everyday words in your writing? Do you shoot for clarity, or do you have a hidden desire to educate? Do you find most big words suit well in a historical, but they don’t hold up in contemporary works because they sound too formal? As a writer do these big words frustrate you, or are they like chocolate melting on your tongue and titillating your senses?
Speak to me.