Salubrious and Laborious

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.

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26 Responses to Salubrious and Laborious

  1. I like big words with reservations. I love to discover a new word or two in a book. However, if it’s full of words I don’t know,I’m definitely drawn out of the story.
    I don’t write with a lot of big words.

  2. Diva says:

    I like big words and I cannot lie.

    couldn’t resist.

    That being said, I had no idea what “salubrious” meant. I like big words when they are spot-on and the alternative, simpler terms fail to convey the meaning needed. I don’t like them just for the sake of a vocabulary lesson. For example, I like “obsequious” and “facetious” because they allow me to avoid saying “suck-up” and “smartass”, both phrases I sometimes try to avoid in writing.

    I have on occasion read a book and thought “well didn’t you just sit there with a thesaurus on your lap, author!”

    • robena grant says:

      Ha ha! You made me laugh out loud, Diva. I’ve had exactly these thoughts:
      I have on occasion read a book and thought “well didn’t you just sit there with a thesaurus on your lap, author!”

  3. KarenB says:

    *snort* what Diva said!
    I do love big words and use them myself. In writing, it depends. It’s like swearing, it has to fit and not be gratuitous in order to work. (See, big word used properly!) If it feels like the author is just reaching to not use the same word again and instead is perusing the thesaurus then I’m distracted and irritated. I actually do know what salubrious and laborious mean, but, y’know, English teacher!

    • robena grant says:

      Hi, Karen. You big ol’ bragger you! ; ) I never thought of it like swearing, but yes, we often do that and the words used have to match the emotion and the character’s background, just like the big words have to match the true character.

  4. Nan says:

    I’m a word maven, I confess, but using big words or even another word for the more common term just because you can or because you think you have to mix it up irritates me. You’re alienating your reader and yes, Diva is spot on with her thesaurus reference. If I can tell you’ve been right-clicking to check out Word’s thesaurus for a better word, then you shoulda stuck with first choice. I do it. We all do it. But it’s better to rethink and read the sentence aloud with the new word. If it doesn’t trip lightly, rethink it.

    Excellent topic today, Roben!

    • robena grant says:

      Thanks, Nan. And that’s a good tip: read the work aloud. I’d be afraid that if I didn’t know the meaning of a word and used it inappropriately that someone would call me out on it publicly. ; ) Also, if I’m unsure of pronunciation (because you know, we people of other countries often mispronounce words) then I won’t use it in my writing. If I can’t say it…it’s out of there.

    • Maine Betty says:

      I never noticed that feature in Word before. How piquant! Extraordinary! amazing! notable! outstanding! noteworthy! and, you know…cool.

      In contemporary writing, I would expect $20 words to be used as an indicator of character or attitude towards a character. If you hang out with the Victorians, you come across them often, so I’m comfortable with them.

  5. Gina Bono says:

    I definitely enjoy learning new words and don’t mind having to look up one or two in a book if I can’t figure them out from context. I’ve got no hidden desire to educate, though, and I tend to stick to the ten cent words when I write 😉

  6. robena grant says:

    I know! Gina, that word salubrious stuck in my thoughts for ages after learning what it meant. I sincerely doubt I could use it in a sentence though. Ha ha.

  7. Melissa Fox says:

    As with so many things, it’s all about context. If the big words fit with the character and flow of the story, they’re so much fun to use, but not if they’re unexpected or jarring. I recall a popular author who used “vituperous” at least once in much of her early work, and it always pulled me out, as the characters didn’t use similar language or style anywhere else in the story. See, I still remember that!

  8. For the kind of writing I do, I stick with everyday stuff, unless I have a character who would talk in that manner.

    I’ve mentioned before how bucolic always throws me when I read it in fiction. It sounds nothing like what it means, sort of like salubrious, right? That sounds more like a person with a saliva problem. LOL

    • robena grant says:

      Ha ha. You guys are a riot today! A saliva problem, Lynne!!! I don’t know the roots for the word will have to explore and find out how it originated. But for sure, saliva and wholesome don’t go together.

  9. Tiffany N. York says:

    I agree with Melissa–if it’s appropriate for the character to use big words, then so be it, but if your character is a 17 yr old homeless hooker, you’d better be able to show how she would know words like that.

    • robena grant says:

      Right on, Tiffany. Now if she turned to hooking because her parents were so heavy on her about education…and they were well-educated…yeah, it could happen. It might be fun to write a hooker who quoted Shakespeare during the act. ; )

  10. Sam Beck says:

    The English major in me, (or, even worse, the lawyer), kind of likes big, pretentious words. But my inner writer likes simple, everyday, don’t-blow-the-reader-out-of-the-story-with-a-word-grenade,” kind of vocab.

    • robena grant says:

      OMG! Sam! English major and lawyer! You must be a wordsmith extraordinaire! (Look at all of those !!!! I really am impressed.) I’m definitely going to look for big fancy pants words in your soon to be published book. Ha ha.

  11. First of all: LOL Lynne Marshall! I had to google “bucolic,” and I totally agree with your assessment.

    But back to the main question: I don’t mind the occasional unfamiliar word, and the fact that I can just touch a word on my Kindle and it tells me the definition is one of my favorite e-reader features. However, if I end up looking up more than one word every three pages, then I start to get frustrated. It makes me feel incompetent and it becomes too hard to stay invested in the actual story. I think I’ve had to let about three books go for this reason. The effort it took to read them outweighed the enjoyment, so down they went.

    Then again, what I consider to be a unusual word might be considered perfectly natural for someone else. I’ve occasionally included words (both in verbal conversations and written form) and received the raised-eyebrow, what-the-hell-does-that-mean response. To me, it was the appropriate word to use, but to them, it caused confusion or made me appear snobby (one example: I used the word “haughty” in conversation and everyone thought I was saying “hottie,” even though the context was rather obvious. After spelling the word to explain myself, it became clear that none of them were familiar with it, and I got ribbed for using “fancy author words.” lol). I once bought a box of used Linda Howard novels from Craigslist and several words had been highlighted throughout. I think the previous owner was trying to learn english, or perhaps her vocabulary was just not as expanded as mine. It was fascinating to see which words she struggled with (and probably looked up in a dictionary later). Some seemed incredibly common/obvious to me, whereas others, although familiar to me, were more obscure.

    So, I suppose you just have to write in the voice that works for you. I avoid including fancy words just for the sake of sounding literary, but don’t try to dumb-down my language style either.

  12. robena grant says:

    Laura, you and my daughter would hit it off so well. : ) She’s always talking about the dumbing down of our society. But I argue back that all novels are not meant to be literary. Some are meant as an escape, like most genre fiction, a pure pleasure to indulge in…like that piece of chocolate. And if I want big words and a more formal society I’ll read novels set in a bygone era. If I feel like being educated I’ll choose literary fiction. : )

  13. Thea says:

    A favorite word is “ensorcel.” I used it in a bit of writing a long decade ago and got called on it. C’mon, people, ensorcel, “to charm or fascinate.” Evidently not a word as well known to others as it is to me. Sigh. However, these days I spot “ensorcel” here and there in my reading. So words have vogues.

  14. robena grant says:

    Oooh, I like the way that sounds, Thea. Ensorcel. I looked it up in my Webster’s and it says “bewitch” so yeah, fascinate, bewitch, but how would you use it in a sentence? “Darling, you ensorcel me.” It sounds at the very least, intriguing. Ha ha.

  15. Nancy says:

    I have to admit to enjoying the big words. Unless as other have said, it seems forced or unnatural for the character. But a smart character, say like Sherlock Holmes type, should be using vocabulary that makes me look for my dictionary.
    Just finished Unlock the Truth…what a great read!

    nancy

  16. robena grant says:

    Nancy, I knew you would like big words. ; ) I couldn’t get ensorcel out of head last night.
    Thank you so much for your kind words, glad you loved the read.