The Words

The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), Private Collection. Source: Wikipedia

The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), Private Collection. Source: Wikipedia

I was once asked if a writer is required to demonstrate a command of sesquipedalian synonyms in sentences to ensure their work is taken seriously. It's a reasonable question to ask, I thought.

Most writers I've met start as readers first. Reading widely and often is probably the best way to develop a vocabulary. Not only does a reader learn lots of words, but they can also develop a sense of when to use those words, an intuition about context, if you like. 

I will read some books with a dictionary ready to hand (or my phone) for when I encounter a word I don't know. I did this recently, in fact. I was reading a book and stumbled upon the word 'pulchritudinous'. I remembered this word. I'd seen it before, but I couldn't remember what it meant. I'll put it in a sentence for those who haven't got ahead of me and looked it up.

The man had a proclivity for pulchritudinous antiques, his collection commanding the attention of critics and curators

In this context, a guess could be made. Perhaps it would be close. My guess was way off. In fact, the word 'pulchritudinous' is an adjective and is used to describe beauty. That is, a synonym would be 'beautiful'. Having learned the word, I started to wonder when it could possibly be used. My answer is 'rarely'. The word doesn't necessarily add anything to a sentence. The word 'beautiful' or similar words that are just as common and simple would be quite suitable in most contexts.

However, I could see the 'p' word being used in text portraying a sneer from a snotty antique dealer harbouring some jealousy towards the owner of these antiques. The word appears to me as an ugly veil used to obscure what is actually beautiful. The word itself requires a certain raking of the throat in order to pronounce it, an act that would usually lead to spitting. However, pronouncing the tail end of this word forces the speaker to restrain themselves from spitting - the word doesn't allow it. Therefore, the word expresses admiration with a spiteful edge.

So that could work, but it depends. Will it send my reader scrambling for a dictionary? Is that okay? Will it impede the flow and rhythm of the writing? Is there another way to achieve the same ends with a different word? Most importantly, can this adjective be substituted with a verb? 

These are the questions that I ask myself while writing.

Words have definitions but they also have meaning. Developing vocabulary creates more options for a writer but knowing all the words isn't nearly as valuable as knowing the right word.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a column for the Atlantic in 2004 titled 'The Acutest Ear in Paris'. This column has Hitchens reviewing a new translation of Swann's Way by Marcel Proust. The new translator is Lydia Davis and Hitchens contrasts her work with the translations by Kilmartin and Moncrieff.

Hitchens makes a point much more eloquently than I could, though he makes it indirectly. Throughout this review, he makes it clear that a translator needs to ensure they select the right word to convey the proper meaning of each sentence. Every word matters. He even goes so far as to point out that "...it is much more apt and final to say "to go" than "to leave.""

Think about that for a second. Think about when you would say "don't go" and when you would say "don't leave". I'll leave that with you to contemplate.

Both "go" and "leave" are verbs, which are the most important words available to a writer. In fact, if I were to encourage a writer to develop their vocabulary, I'd insist that they cultivated a list of verbs. Verbs are powerful. They are the key to 'showing-not-telling'.

Graham walked into the room. Did I walk? Maybe I stalked, or marched, or crept, or staggered, or stumbled into the room. Each verb puts a picture in the reader's mind. It shows the reader what's happening rather than telling. They are brilliant. They are important. They make a story real. And they're simple words.

Which brings me to the question I was asked that prompted this post. No, it's not necessary to write a lot of big words when writing a story. The idea, in fact, is to demonstrate humanity and all its complexity using the simplest words possible. Complicated words can obfuscate; writing should reveal truth, not obscure it.

It can be done. The book that inspired me to become a writer flattened me with only three words. Three words. Four syllables. Those three words were given power by the story that preceded them. Those three words conveyed regret, loss, vulnerability, melancholy, happiness, love, resolve, and so much more. Three simple words.

And, yes, in case you were wondering: one of those words was a verb.