I love big words, and odd words, and funny-sounding words. Recently my husband – who is an orchid freak anyway – purchased a pinguicula (ping-GWIK-you-la) in part because he knows I like the sound of the name. My normal vocabulary is rife with polysyllabics. It’s not an affectation; it’s just the way I talk.
It is not, however, the way I write. When I write a piece of prose, whether it’s fiction or a newspaper article, I use the fancy words very sparingly indeed. Compared with what I have at hand, my writing vocabulary is almost basic, stripped down to clear, usually short words.
It took me years to learn this. Purple is an almost unbearably attractive colour to apply to prose. What’s the use of owning a word like “pneumoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniconiosis”, or even “fortuitously”, if you never take it out of the drawer, right?
Well, right. But, again, you don’t want to wear it all the time, now, do you? A little purple goes a long, long way. Good old blue denim is very serviceable, can be tailored, double-seamed, appliquéd or dressed up with a few rhinestone buttons, and will suit almost any occasion.
Metaphor aside, the truth is that the English language is full of wonderful, expressive short words that most of us know. I recall a short fiction piece in Ms Magazine, many years ago, in which a child broke the bottle in a water cooler. The author used the phrase “curly pieces of glass” in her description. It was a wonderfully vivid, concrete and visual image. “Curly” is a simple, ordinary word, but applied to glass it made those shards of ten-gallon bottle really stand out for me. It’s a picture I’ve remembered for a couple of decades, one made in my own head from the author’s simple but well-chosen words.
There’s a power in short words, too, to create mood. Take “chop”, for example. If you read that someone chopped the skin off an apple, you’d probably think that they were using forceful, fast strokes, and probably taking chunks of the flesh of the apple with the peel.
The point to good writing is to make yourself invisible, and let the reader get lost in your story or article. The reader shouldn’t be thinking, “Wow, what a clever writer!” but “Uh-oh – trouble coming!” or whatever mood or scene you’re trying to create. Big words can really throw off your aim.
It took me years to learn that showing off every big word I had wasn’t part of being a good writer. I still bring my big words out, but I sprinkle them lightly. They’re also amazing for humour, and that’s mostly where I use them now.
There is a place for big word, particularly hexasyllabics, and I’ll talk about that next.