One matter every writer should take into account is what level to pitch his vocabulary at. It is no use using words that the reader doesn’t understand. Some may take the trouble to look them up, but most won’t bother and the piece of writing will fall into one of those categories proudly invented by the lazy and ignorant: similar to TLDR (too long, didn’t read). This one might be TCDU (too clever, didn’t understand).
Whether we meant to be like that (unlikely) or we just didn’t notice we were doing it (must be more vigilant), it’s a sure way of alienating readers and is to be avoided.
Of course, this means guessing at the intellectual and educational level of our readers, which is not easy to gauge, and it is equally self-defeating to talk down to people, but such is life. Most of us spend much of our time trying to fit in, rather than being ourselves.
Those writers who don’t care end up catering for a small readership of fellow intellectuals in highbrow magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements.
A similar phenomenon at the other end of the scale is using unnecessarily fancy words in an attempt to look more intelligent. Any young journalist taking that sickly path through writing advertorials will be familiar with the scenario of the client deciding to jazz up the professional’s effort by changing ‘while’ to ‘whilst’ and generally trying to make it sound as though the ‘article’ (a thinly-veiled advertisement for their tattoo and piercings shop) was written by Jane Austen.
Appropriateness, then, is what we should be aiming at. Neither pretentious nor condescending. Call a spade a spade unless you’re using it for the second time in a paragraph, when you could take the ‘garden implement’ route simply to void duplication.
What this does, though, is deprive us of some beautiful, evocative words.
Lubricious, for instance. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s a word that glistens, shimmers in the light, full of untold delights and refined decadence.
Wouldn’t you love to describe something or someone as lubricious? Just once before the angels carry you off to literary heaven to have dinner with John Keats and Oscar Wilde?
Careful, though. Wilde might have got away with it, but if you describe your neighbour’s wife as lubricious, you could be in trouble once he’s looked it up. Because here is what the Oxford Online Dictionary says:
- Offensively displaying or intended to arouse sexual desire.
- Smooth and slippery with oil or a similar substance.
There; you thought it was vaguely erotic, didn’t you? But complimentary. Err, I mean she’s a very attractive lady. And I do mean lady. That’s not what I understood it to mean… I didn’t intend to…
Better look it up first in future. Because that is how we improve our language skills – by looking things up.
One of my favourite novels is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. Not because of the sexual content, although that is handled with brilliant forthrightness and you can see why it caused such a furore 50 or 60 years ago.
But what is beautiful about the book is the language Lawrence uses to describe his surroundings: the countryside around the stately home, pockmarked with mines and mining villages. That and his frank understanding of human beings.
The first time I read it I spent half the time with my nose in a dictionary. The writing is not flowery, it’s evocative, and it’s not just a matter of looking up words you don’t know, but of finding out why a word you do know is used in a different context. When you have looked them up, you’re grateful to have learnt something.
But that’s a great novel, not your double glazing company report or university thesis on landfill sites.
However, if you do find a way of slipping lubricious into one of those documents, please let me know.