Buying the Right Word

*Before I get started, don’t forget to check out and enter the Word Wars Contest.*

On Saturday, DH took me shopping.  For the record, I hate shopping.  I would rather tweeze my arm pit hair than shop for clothes.  God was kind enough to give me the bottom half of an hour-glass figure.  He must have forgotten that squeezing such shapes into jeans is not Heaven on Earth.  Or maybe He did…

Finding the right pair of  jeans is like finding the right word in writing.  When it happens, it’s golden.  However, it should never be forced or we will end up with buyer’s remorse.

Now I’m a firm believer that buying a word out of the dictionary or thesaurus is dangerous, and I don’t advocate for it.  If I have to hunt a word down through the seven degrees of synonyms, it will be as apparant as the wrong cut of jeans–regardless of the price.

As an example, over Thanksgiving weekend we hung out with DH’s family.  We were talking about dogs (ie those who have them in their houses and those who despise the fact that they exist) and how bringing a beloved pet to a non dog-lover’s home is rude.

“I would never foist my dog on someone who doesn’t like them,” I said to my DH and both brothers-in-law.

In their defense, they were three sheets to the wind and it was 2:00 in the morning.  However, I got harangued for “making up” a word.  When I explained it’s meaning (to thrust or force upon) I was told in no uncertain terms to use “real words that everyone can understand.”

As writers, we sometimes fall into the trap of showing off.  We like to pontificate and end up sprinkling thesaurus words throughout our writing.  The end product is reader annoyance.  And too much reader annoyance equals a loss of interest.

I used foist because I’m comfortable with it.  I didn’t have to search the dictionary to define it, nor did I page through the thesaurus until I found a word that sounded cool.  I used it because the nuances were exactly what I wanted to convey. 

Had we taken away the sheets and the late hour, I’m sure my beloved three stooges could have used the context clues to understand my meaning. 

Context clues provide the basic structure for a word’s use.  Quite frankly, it’s how I increased my vocabulary.  As a child I read books that challenged me with unknown words.  Jules Verne being my favorite in the fourth grade.

I loved when writers bought sixty dollar words and eloquently slipped them in the middle of fifty cent phrases.  I could figure out the gist of the meaning with relative ease.  And if all else failed, there was always the dictionary.

What I hated were the million dollar words.  The ones writers culled from the seven degrees of synonyms to find.  And by million dollar words, I don’t necessarily mean big, bold and lyrical.  I mean words that are foreign to the writer and therefore lack the easy comfort of use.

Thrust Upon=Foist=Impose=Promulgate=Disseminate=Distribute=Bestow

“I would never bestow my dog on someone who doesn’t like them.”

Technically this could be correct, although it doesn’t quite capture the distaste the person would feel if I gave my dog to them.  Bestow has positive connotations.  Foist does not. 

Simple substitution with unfamiliar words doesn’t benefit the author or the reader.  When used improperly, it can cause confusion.  For readers in the know, it can cause frustration, irritation and ridicule. 

Words have too many nuances to be pulled off the rack like a pair of size five jeans.  By definition, they should fit.  However, it’s the style that counts.

What are some of your favorite sixty dollar words?  What are your least favorite million dollar words?  Do write to the “masses” or do you use words that stretch and challenge your readers?

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16 responses to “Buying the Right Word

  1. It is interesting to me that the few people who have made remarks like this to me (all not-very-liberated men, by the way) always seem to think that the fault lies with the speaker, and not themselves. 🙂

    • I’ve been on that end before. They look at you like you’re being snobby, rather than looking at it as an opportunity to learn something new. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “Hey, I’ve never heard that word before. What does it mean?”

  2. For starters, perhaps in YA it is imperative to de-elevate the language, but for my readers, I endeavor to recreate a 19th century style, reminiscent of the writers of that bygone era. In addition, my main character puts on airs of erudition, thereby speaking with a complex tongue. If readers discern such embellishment as affected and not whimsical, then they are quite free to peruse their local atheneum for picture books.

    🙂

    • Nice comment. When you got started I thought I might have to pull out the dictionary. However, I did get through your passage unscathed. : )

      I don’t know about de-elevating for YA. I think they should have a pretty good lexicon in their gray matter by that point. Even for middle grade and chapter books, I enjoy using words that make my readers think and explore the language.

  3. I really believe it is harder to use smaller words effectively. There really is more subtlety when you use smaller words. Just look up the word run in a dictionary and see the multiple definitions of it. Larger words usually have narrower meanings. You should never write up or down to an audience but be yourself.

    It is really important to read. That is how you learn how to use a word. And that is how you learn the proper connotations of it. Just because you know the definition of a word that does not mean you know how to properly use it. Reading the word teaches you that context in which it is used. The more times you come across the word, the better feel you get for that word.

    • Siggy, good point in how reading teaches the proper context of a word. Anyone could glean a word of the day, but not know how to use it in Rea Life.

      I try not to write up or down either, though I like to stretch vocab in my readers. It’s what I loved about reading as a kid and still enjoy to this day.

  4. I’m writing for an adult audience, so I assume they have a decent vocabulary. But I’m definitely not reaching for million dollar words–I use the words that work.

    I DO use my thesaurus sometimes, but it’s when I know the right word, but can’t think of it, but know it’s really close to another word. Am I the only one whose brain occasionally blanks out, and can feel the shape of the word I want, know what it tastes like, but can’t quite summon it? Anyway, that’s when I use the thesaurus.

    Often the word I’m groping for is missing from the thesaurus too, but the words that ARE there trigger those little neural pathways that lead to the one I want.

    Favorite sixty dollar words change from day to day. Today I am feeling fond of “dearth”, “lucid”, and “ethereal”. Don’t ask why.

    Your mention of million dollar words reminds me of the t-shirt that I never owned, but desperately wanted. It said:

    “Eschew Obfuscation.”

    HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

    And I imagine there are many million dollar words in THIS book, although I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in person.

    http://www.amazon.com/Highly-Selective-Thesaurus-Extraordinarily-Literate/dp/0062700162/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1263834561&sr=8-1

    • Awesome. I love the T-shirt.

      Not to worry, I blank out sometimes and resort to the dictionary (spelling mostly) or the thesaraus (to trigger the neuropathways that are already present). You are not alone.

  5. jmartinlibrarian

    Awesome post.

    Just last Saturday, I was at a get together with some author friends. We’re always joking about my weird word choice. We got to talking about children’s picture books, and I mentioned how I loathe kids books which are didactic.

    Blank stares. “There you go again with those words…”

    It’s frustrating when you’re comfortable with a word, but your audience isn’t.

    I have to work at matching word choice with characters and audience.

    Argh!

    • I love the cricket stares…

      DH and I played Scrabble last week and was challenged on several words. It was to know I knew what they meant when we checked the dictionary. I would hate to spout off and be very wrong!

      I’m sure you do an amazing job with putting in context clues for your readers.

  6. I love using sixty million dollar words when I speak. The only problem is I usually follow it up with something stupid, so it ruins it!

  7. I use words in my writing that I use in real life. (I’m writing for an adult audience, so I don’t feel the need to ‘dumb down’ my writing.) And I think that it’s a bit of a cop out if you have to edit your muse for a ‘lazy’ audience.

    One of my favorites is the word ‘akimbo’. It’s such a fun word!

    And I also use the thesaurus when I’m thinking of a word, but it is hiding behind a few of my other brain cells and won’t be coaxed out of hiding. (of course my spelling is usually abysmal so it’s hard to find out what word I’m truly trying to look up.)

    I learned to use words through reading when I was younger. I was heavily into Sci-Fi / Fantasy, and there are some very interesting words to puzzle through. Though I will admit, Dune was too much. When a book comes with its own dictionary? Um not interested.

    And of course because I’m trying to think of some of my other favorite words, their off hiding. Probably having a drink or two laughing as I stumble around trying to figure out where they were snaffled off to.

    (hubster tried to tell me snaffle wasn’t a real word, but one of my favorite authors uses it quite a bit _and_ it’s in the dictionary. HA!)

    • Steph, I have always loved the word akimbo as well. Crazy, but true.

      I like your sentiment: And I think that it’s a bit of a cop out if you have to edit your muse for a ‘lazy’ audience.

      I write for kids, but I still don’t dumb down my writing. Nothing is worse than being condescended to. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and if we stretch their abilities, they will only succeed more easily.

      I’m with you on the “if it comes with a dictionary” thing. Fiction is meant to be enjoyed. It should never be a chore.

  8. Great post, Cat! I’m careful with my words. At school, I use a lot of $60 words & encourage the kids to figure them out on their own. It works well as long as I keep it in control. Every once in a while I’ll throw out a million $ word for fun – they like it because it’s a challenge.

    When writing I don’t overdo it either. I love words, LOTS of words. Always have. So I’m careful not to irritate 🙂

    • Jemi,

      I think it is so important to expose kids to newer words. Even hearing them spoken a time or two, then seeing them written will give them a leg up on kids whose teachers aren’t so conscientious about teaching life skills.

      It’s a bummer that the commute for my kids would be a wee bit far every day. I hope the families you work with appreciate the education you are giving their children.

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