Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thoughts on $10 Words

Eleanor Catton's essay at Metro .....On Literature and Elitism inspired an article at Salon by Laura Miller last week: Is the Literary World Elitist?
Laura Miller's piece, and comments beneath it, in turn inspired this post.

Sidelight:
Eleanor Catton, by the way is author of The Luminaries. From Wikipedia
The book was described as "a dazzling feat of a novel" by The Observer. It is unusual for being organized … according to astrological principles, so that characters are not only associated with signs of the zodiac, or the sun and moon (the "luminaries" of the title), but interact with each other according to the predetermined movement of the heavens, while each of the novel's 12 parts decreases in length over the course of the book to mimic the moon waning through its lunar cycle.

The thrust of both articles, and most commentary on them, is the question of whether use of uncommon words in writing - particularly, I guess, in fiction rather than non-fiction or textbook style writing - can indicate elitist tendencies. Uncommon words. Ernest Hemingway called them "ten dollar words": “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

In the articles linked, a word under scrutiny as being of the 10-dollar variety was "crepuscular". If a word is unfamiliar to the reader would the thing to do be to look it up online or in a dictionary if one is to hand? Or decide meaning from context - not always accurate, could be misleading? Or to sigh, read on until another unfamiliar word appears then declare the author "elitist"?

I am, I think, far from elitist in this regard (I could possibly be accused of that in other regards, but we all could in some sphere). I did know the word's meaning: relating to or resembling twilight, from schoolgirl French: crépuscule = twilight. Why wouldn't I know that? When I first ventured online more than 12 yrs ago I chose a screen name: Twilight, and it was long before those films about vampires were even a twinkle in the producer's eye. I did originally actually ponder whether to call myself Crépuscule, but that would undoubtedly have smacked of elitism !

Another word mentioned as unfamiliar to some people, "lupine" = wolfish, like a wolf. Again, schoolgirl Latin would come to my rescue if I encountered the word lupine in a novel. Not everyone had the benefit (or otherwise) of studying that dead language though, but it doesn't make me elitist because I did. I'd never use the word myself, in writing or conversation, in spite of knowing its meaning, that could make me elitist.

Everyone has a different range of vocabulary, assembled throughout life from widely differing sources and experiences. While I value simple over embellishment, always, simple for me, at times, could translate as over-embellished by someone with different experiences. I've been known to use words with which my husband isn't familiar, not because he isn't well-read or educated, but because I lived most of my life in England, he in the USA.

So....it's not easy to distinguish between elitist use of words and use of words which come quite naturally to one person but are unfamiliar to another, in conversation anyway. In writing for a, potentially vast, unknown public, are things a wee bit different? Should the writer consider more carefully the words used? I'd say so, but only up to a point. There are some words known mainly to those with the background of a literary academic. If such a literary academic were to decide to write a novel, they would be well-advised to step away from the ivory towers of academia and consider the words used from a place nearer to the ground - that is if the would-be author wishes to sell books to an audience wider than a minority of fellow academics.

Back to 10 dollar words. I still remember, after more years than I care to count, a sentence taught to me by the owner of a small sweet shop (candy store in American) near my childhood home. This is it:
Gastronomic satiety admonishes me that I have come to the ultimate stage of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity.
Translation: I've had enough to eat/I am full.

I've just started to re-read a novel I first read back in the 1960s, it's by one of my favourite authors, Howard Spring. I've since read almost every novel he wrote. In the early chapters of this, his first novel, Shabby Tiger, I came across the word "aguish". Hmm, I thought. That looks odd, wonder if it's a misprint. From context I gathered it related to some kind of discomfort. I pondered. Maybe it's derived from the word ague - an illness. I read on, but later looked up the word online.
aguish: of or relating to a fever with successive stages of fever and chills, esp when caused by malaria......of or relating to a fit of shivering.
Another formerly unfamiliar word is now in the drawer marked "familiar" in the memory card-index of my brain.

Other points brought up in the articles and commentary first mentioned in this post related to amateur book reviews found at Amazon or Goodreads websites. Exchanges struck me as petty snobbery rather than anything truly elitist, and really just another version of "team-syndrome", a phenomenon very common in the USA: Seahawks/Brocos, Democrats/Republicans, Leno/Letterman, East/West, North/South, cool/uncool, urban/rural, Woody/Dylan. In this instance it was intellectuals, pseudo intellectuals, or would-be intellectuals against the more average, populist, non-academic mortals who like to read authors who entertain and transport them, in a way each reader finds entertaining and transporting.

12 comments:

mike said...

The dumbing-down of America will not be complete until we reduce the English language to a compilation of about one thousand words. And now acronyms seem to be replacing words and phrases. What next...simple icons and emoticons like the smiley face to replace language?

I'm often surprised that words I use in my conversations are met with a look of non-understanding. Or someone replying to a written statement that I assume any 7th grader would comprehend, makes statements indicating a complete lack of assessing the written. I was taught in my early education to always keep a dictionary nearby and USE it. As indicated, using the online dictionaries couldn't be easier, but that action must be too involved for most to endure.

I enjoy encountering non-familiar words and phrases...it expands my word-base and personal knowledge. Often, a non-familiar word is the PERFECT word for expressing the idea of the sentence. The difference between the choice of "noisy" and "cacophony" for example...similar, but not quite.

Today's world panders to the generic, simplified, and condensed thought process. It's like the difference between reading the actual literature versus the Cliff Notes for that piece. In mathematics, it's the difference between knowing how to solve for an equation versus plugging the numbers into a calculator and knowing which buttons to push to result in an answer...even that is too complex for many, as they don't know how to set-up the problem.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that most youth receive their "news" via Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and online social media. Seems spoon-feeding is the way to go with today's younger generations or be left in the dust. I find it a rare occurrence to find an individual of any age in today's world that actually takes the time to research, evaluate, and form their own conclusions about any topic.

mike (again) said...

P.S. - Online dictionaries are abridged...nothing like an unabridged dictionary for full meaning selection and possible older or additional definitions, besides the colloquial.

Regarding Hemingway using simplified text, he has an extraordinary ability to convey similes and metaphors through complex sentence structure and contrast. I'm not sure that a minimally trained reader can extract Hemingway's full expression.

Twilight said...

mike~ The internet is solely responsible for the chasm that's emerging in style of communication. Those of us well past our half-century are able, just about, to straddle the chasm, but as we die off our older sensibilities and communication styles will disappear with us, the world will have completed its latest change, once we straddlers are all gone.

I'm not sure we can argue whether it's right or wrong, preferable or deplorable. It just is. We can see it only from our own perspectives and standpoints. It's interesting to experience it though - to be a part of the emerging change.

Hey - maybe one day words, written words, will disappear completely and humans (if the species survives) will communicate telepathically. That'd be the next complete change.

I tend to agree with your points, mike. Adding that I think standards for professional writers have to be assessed differently and held to higher standards than the average scribbler online.

When I first joined the civil service, in the UK , I was required, as were all newcomers, to take a course in how to write "plain English". LOL! That experience extracted any romantic notions of using flowery prose and creative writing during our time with a government department. I guess that training left a mark in my brain, and has remained with me. It's why I think twice before using a word familiar to me, but possibly unfamiliar to others - not because I'm cleverer or better-read or better educated, but because I've absorbed it from some experience of my own.

Another lesson we had to absorb: always consider who is the recipient. It's not always easy to do when writing posts then throwing them willy-nilly into cyber space!
:-)

LB said...

My vocabulary isn't as extensive as I'd like it to be. And I wish I was a better writer too. I think I used to be until my progressed Mercury in Sag gone retrograde began to square my natal Virgo Ascendent, exacerbating any natural proclivity I might have to engage in pedantic speech. Hahaha - how was that? In truth, my thoughts don't flow as effortlessly onto paper as they once did. And thanks to automatic spell check, I don't spell so good either.

Anyway, this self-perceived lack is probably why I enjoy running across new words and don't mind looking them up. Like mike, I was taught to keep a dictionary handy so I could refer to it whenever I encountered an unfamiliar word or wasn't sure how to spell something.

Kind of related to this topic is why some of us are so reluctant to explore and research unfamiliar ideas and concepts, particularly those that have a direct impact on our lives and health and the lives and health of our fellow inhabitants.

Some intellectuals seem to have big vocabularies (and brains) but limited perspectives and insight. Either their words lack truth and wisdom (and cause harm) or they talk without doing. Like all precious gifts, powerful words and intellects are not to be wasted.

LB (again) said...

I'd rather listen to the humble words of a compassionate, honest and aware speaker than the corrupt words of a superior intellect who uses them to deceive and manipulate.

It's why I don't like politics.

Twilight said...

LB ~ I don't see any lack in your communication talents! You express your points extremely well, fluently and clearly, LB. :-)

What you've written in the last para of your first comment and in your 2nd comment is especially true and insightful. I agree whole-heartedly.

LB said...

Thanks, Twilight. But I struggle in my writing and find myself envying your and mike's apparently easy styles. Believe it or not, I'm a much better (and generally more *succinct*) speaker - at least when I'm inspired and can remember what it is I want to say!:)

I'm looking forward to my progressed Mercury turning direct, though it's probably helped me to be more introspective.

Sabina said...

Interestingly, Shakespeare's vocabulary clocks in at 29,000 words (1,700 of which he coined) compared to the average English-speaker's 4,000 words. Not talking down to his audience doesn't seem to have hurt his intelligibility nor his enduring popularity.
Standards of education have been eroding since the advent of television.
I am rereading Morgan's bio of Maugham which cites dozens of examples of inter-literati backbiting. Hemingway was a notoriously poor speller but it's also just possible he was jealous of Faulkner's successes.
I think it more likely the future of language will be a regression to the grunts and gesticulations of cavemen than telepathy. It's often difficult enough today to discern the intent of much writing on the internet; lord help us trying to decipher nebulous emanations of the functionally illiterate.
One of the wonders of the English language is the range of expression it offers inter-human communications.
What is with our current dislike of calling a spade a spade in matters of education? I recently heard an interview with a university professor on CBC radio here in Canada in which he deplored the complete misunderstanding of the basic tenets of science amongst his students. The implications of illiteracy and innumeracy are terrifying to contemplate: just consider medicine or engineering, for example.
I will allow as how online outpourings offer the solace of humour from time to time; so, if you feel a strong antipathy to my opinions, perhaps you agree I should consider quaffing a 'vile of poison' as I have seen it written ;P

Twilight said...

LB ~ Thanks, but I tend to write "off the top of my head" as fast as my little fingers can type - which often shows, especially in comments!
If I spent more time, I might (only might) reach mike's more eloquent level, but I don't have a lot of patience (Aries Moon and Saturn) ;-)

Twilight said...

Sabina~ Thanks for your interesting contribution. :-)

I take your point regarding the backbiting among authors - I suspect it's the same among pro-astrologers and pros in any sphere.

I don't see it quite as "talking down" though, when a writer tries to consider his audience - I see it more as courtesy and care in trying to get a thought across clearly, especially in fiction writing - not though, if writing factual texts for specialists, that'd have quite different standards.
I'm with Steven King as regards fiction - the quote in my sidebar.

I agree that standards in education generally have dropped dangerously low.

I had to smile at your thought about telepathy with someone hardly able to construct an understandable sentence....maybe telepathy would/will not be via words but via vibration of emotions (or something). :-)

No antipathy here, Sabina - only thankfulness for your contribution to the conversation.
All shades of opinion welcome, it isn't necessary for all to agree with all, all the time - that'd be boring.

Sabina said...

Well, thank you for hosting such an interesting and thought-provoking forum.
I might have been projecting - a term I use with caution, as so many astrologers today insist each of our singular universes comprises nothing but projection - about the antipathy but I was trying to make a small joke.
I worried about the 'tone' of my previous comment but today rediscovered that in my Mercury-ruled chart, with Gem on the MC, not only is tr Mercury opp my Pluto, but tr Pluto is not only cj my Mars, but is therefore also sq my Mercury. If that don't make for intense communications, I don't know nuttin' bout astrology.

Twilight said...

Sabina ~ LOL! Projecting is a term I don't think I've ever used or properly understood in my life, so if you were, I wouldn't know it.
:-)

Tone seemed fine to me. As communications go, anything you wrote was exceptionally mild, sweet in fact, as compared with some of the stuff I see around the net daily.