Monday, November 20, 2006

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?

~ Brandilyn Collins writes Seatbelt Suspense™ for Zondervan. She is hoping she's able to remain a contributor to Charis after this post, seein' as how the Big E is a fellow Charisite.;


At 5:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say it's a balancing act. I knew what scrim of nascent stars meant. I, too, love words of unusual size (in letters or in meaning).

Like you, a couple of new words per book excites me, but too many of them, too many times pulled out of the narrative, and I start getting irritated.

Your use of them hasn't stopped me from reading your books. :)

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

What do I say? I say use them! If we writers don't use these lesser known words, who will? We need to keep them from being listed as "obsolete" in the dictionary. If a reader learns a new word, isn't that a good thing? We're always telling children to use a dictionary to learn the meaning of a word. Why should this stop when we're adults? Writers are meant to elevate the culture, not talk down to it, and we do this in part by using these unusual--and beautiful and poetic--words and phrases.

Good post, Brandilyn!

At 11:18 AM, Blogger batgirl said...

Balance- definately. I have a friend who so loves his big words that I can barely get through a paragraph without a dictionary. I'd never be able to relax with a book like that. But I love a book that challenges, teaches me new words, especially if I can guess their meaning from the context.Yes, I think you do it well, Brandilyn:)

At 11:19 AM, Blogger lisa samson said...

My rule of thumb is that if I know the word, I use it. What I stopped doing years ago was going into a thesaurus and digging up big words that I didn't know existed before looking it up.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Heather said...

If you say it loud enough, you'll always sound precocious.
If it weren't for Mary Poppins, I wouldn't know what precocious means. Educate me!
My first word was hippopotamus. Well, it was something more akin to hipp'amus. But still, my mother determined I would be eh-hem, precocious, so she taught me big words. Somebody needs to teach me. Might as well be the books. Novel idea.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

I'm looking out the window, seeing a wide band of turquoise Caribbean, frothy white breakers cresting on far-off sandbars. Yesterday, I nearly stumbled over a lime green iguana as I came out of the church nursery and onto the tiled piazza at my daughter's church,

Ah, the painterly loveliness of words, as Pat Conroy said.

Big words. Little words. Colorful words. Plain words. Your words. My words.

I'm at a loss for words!

Maybe it's the scenery!

At 8:32 PM, Blogger Rachel Starr Thomson said...

A reader recently reprimanded me for using "hove" in my current online WIP ( and I utterly refuse to drop it :).

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooo! Can we share our "unusual" words? I just found a new one (to me).

desuetude: a state of inactivity.

Isn't that great!

One of my characters may soon be languishing in desuetude.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Myra Johnson said...

My critique group caught me with some "big words" at our meeting last night. But I'm with you, BC. If the word is just right--the meaning I'm going for, great cadence, and understandable in context--I'm going to use it. :)

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

My wife told me not to write using any words she doesn't know. I told her I plan to get her a larger dictionary for Christmas. (Just kidding, Kay!)
I've been rolling "scrim of nascent stars" around in my mind for two days now. My vote is to paint word pictures when you can. They stick with the reader.


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