BC: Bring On the Big Ones
I have this continuing problem when I write. (Well, actually, I have quite a few.) This one has to do with using “big” words. I love them. Bring on a chimera, the lares and penates, the halcyon days and effluvium and macedoine. Show your characters to be bathetic or benefic, uxorial or oneiric, full of duende, or homunculus.
So readers need a dictionary with the book. So what?
However, editors don’t seem to share this viewpoint. If an editor thinks most readers won’t know what the word means, or (heaven forbid!) doesn’t know the word herself—aayyo, bring on the red pen!
Over the novels I’ve written, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. First, in my naive beginnings, I used all the “big” words I wanted because, well, the authors I read used ’em. Result—the editorial red pens came out. So I caved. Next book—I tried not to use big words. Book after that—I tried a second time. More editorial pens. So next book—I went a little lighter on the words again. Back and forth, back and forth.
“Big” is a relative term anyway. Does it mean a certain number of syllables? If so, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would certainly be considered a big word. But everybody knows that word. (Don’t you? Suddenly, I’m wondering about you young ’uns.) Or does “big” mean not number of syllables, but whether most people would know the meaning? Take nidus, for instance. Only two syllables. But how many readers would know what it means? (A breeding place; a place where ideas originate—usually negative connotation. Now isn't that a dynamite word!).
Perhaps we should use the term “unusual.”
I don’t want to use unusual words for the sake of unusual words. I want to use them because they happen to be the perfect word for the circumstance. Or perhaps I’ve used all the synonyms and don’t want to repeat. Still, I compromise and try to use only a few unusual words per book. Figure maybe that’ll keep me under the Big E’s red pen radar.
Editors aren’t the only ones who give me grief over this issue. My own family can be pretty doggone hard on me as well. There was one phrase in Color the Sidewalk for Me (back in the day when I wasn’t killing people off with every book) that made it past the Big E, but sure set my mother off when she read the manuscript. Upon returning to her home town just as dark is falling, the main character is gazing upon it from a distant hill: "The buildings and machinery of the lumber mill built by my great-grandfather jutted into the sky above the riverbank, boldly silent against a scrim of nascent stars."
Mom frowned at me. "What on earth is a scrim of nascent stars?"
"Oh, you know. When the stars are just coming out, and they're not fully formed yet, 'cause the sky's still half-dark and half-light."
"Well, why didn't you say so?"
"Um. I did."
"No, you didn't; you said 'scrim.' What'd you say 'scrim' for?"
"Because"--I was sinking lower and lower in my chair at this point--"I sort of wanted to sound lyrical and, uh, poetical, and, well, you know."
"Well, what you sounded is misunderstandable. Nix it."
Naturally, being the independent soul that I am, I left the phrase in.
I figure if a word can pretty much be understood in the context, what’s the big deal? So a reader’s eye snags on a word? This never bothers me when I’m reading. Quite the contrary. I’ll think, oh, cool, new word and run for the dictionary.
What say you?