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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Don't Stupidsize Me

After my book Verbal Advantage was published ten years ago, I was invited to be a guest on salon.com, answering questions in an author forum called “Table Talk.” It was a lively discussion. At one point a participant commented that many of the keywords in the book struck her as “trivia questions more than elements of a working vocabulary.” And she asked, “As much fun as it is to know a word like sciamachy [fighting with a shadow or an imaginary opponent], do you really think it should be part of everyday discourse?” This was my response:

Nine-tenths of the words in an unabridged dictionary are not part of everyday discourse, and probably at least a third of those are not technical, literary, pompous, or particularly obscure. They’re just not common. Should lexicographers therefore not bother to list them? (Sometimes they don’t, to make room for trendy new words.) Should we not bother to learn some of them, if only because it’s fun? And why should something as unimaginative and perfunctory as everyday discourse dictate what words are pleasurable and useful to learn?

The other day I was reading Ezra Pound’s poem “Sestina: Altaforte” in The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, and I paused on this line: “And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing.” Here Pound could have used warhorses or perhaps chargers, but he went with the uncommon destriers, and it’s the perfect choice historically, rhythmically, and acoustically. (It was also a delightful moment for me because it sent me to the dictionary to resurrect destrier from the cryonic cavern of my passive vocabulary.)

To a writer all words are useful, whether they are used today, tomorrow, next year, just once, or never at all. Just having a word is enough; it’s like having had a certain experience. For example, my experience with the adjective chryselephantine, made of gold and ivory, gave me untold delight, while my experience with the verb impact was unpleasant enough to make me swear off it permanently.

What writer wouldn’t squirm and curse if confined to the vocabulary of everyday discourse? That’s like having to eat fast food and drink Coke at every meal. Such an unappealing diet of unremarkable words can do only one thing: stupidsize me.

This isn’t an argument against simplicity of diction, which has many merits. It is an argument against the arbitrary dictum that we must at all times use simple words and that unusual words have no rightful place in our discourse. Writers who accept that dictum condemn themselves to the frustration of trying to do finish work with but a hammer and saw. And they forfeit, foolishly, the opportunity to enjoy the treasure of our tongue.
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