Russell Kirkpatrick had an interesting post over on his blog last week, about a list of words he obtained from a book he was reading, a list that a reader of that book had trouble understanding. Russell asked how many of these words we knew without having to look them up. Read his blog here to find out how he came by the list.

I particularly liked his remark in the comments section too: “I guess authors have be careful at what level they pitch their vocabulary. A reader doesn’t want to be constantly looking up words in the dictionary. But if we all write for the lowest common denominator, some lovely and powerful words will be lost forever.”

Here’s the list:
haled (as in ‘haled him home’)
lard (as in ‘with a needle lard each tenderloin’)
omelette aux champignons
mot juste

en casserole
succes de scandale
truite bleu
Plimsoll mark
Paradise enow

The ones in the red are the ones I did not know. The blue ones are either the ones I sort of knew but didn’t quite get right, or ones I guessed wildly at, and got accidently right.

I note that one commentator on Russell’s blog said she got them all right – which was pretty impressive.

Anyway, it highlights a problem that we writers have – do we make concessions to our readers with the choice of our vocabulary? Use long and difficult words when short simple ones will do and we are accused, quite rightly, of being pretentious. However, there are times when a more difficult word is exactly right in that context. And so I use it, knowing that many of my readers will not understand it.

I look at it this way: most of us have learned the more unusual words in our vocabulary by reading them. Reading, not listening, is in fact the reason I have an extensive vocabulary. [Maybe that is not so true now with the present generation who get to listen to TV a lot more than my generation listened to the radio. I wonder, though, if TV extends vocabulary the way reading does…other than it puts the watcher in touch with recent trends in catchwords, technology and slang.]

And so my hope is that if a reader does not know a word when they read it, they will either guess its meaning from the context, or they will look it up, and either way they gain a new word.

Of course, sometimes a disparity in the writer’s vocab and the reader’s recognition leads to confusion. As I think I have mentioned elsewhere, my copy editor read the sentence “She feathered the oars” and asked me why the oars were covered in feathers? And a mention of someone being in the van of the army led to the query: How come the army had vans? What sort of vans did they have in those days?


Language — 18 Comments

  1. I definitely prefer that authors use whatever words are appropriate in the context. If that means the word is rarely used, so be it. Julian May certainly takes this approach, and while it can be a little overwhelming, it’s also wonderful. Given how easy it is to use online dictionaries, there’s no excuse for not being able to check any word that a reader comes across that’s new to them.

    I’d argue for never “dumbing down” anywhere: keep the standards high, and many people will rise to it.

    From Kirkpatrick’s list, I can’t say I do particularly well; I don’t believe I’ve ever seen about 20-25% used. Sigh.

  2. Those words are from ‘european origin’ as far as i remember many are used in french, or are built like french: So i have no glory to know some of them. It’s funny as here in France everyone keep on telling french is not very much used in the world, and that we have more an more english words in our language. Funny enough they are like gibberish to your english ears ^^

    I like to read and learn new things but i happened to read Thomas mann and i was not delighted to open the dictionary every 2 pages on a book made of around 800 pages. May be it depends what you aim at when you are a writer: for the most of readers or for initiated readers.

  3. I never ever look up words while I read… that’s just not the headspace I’m in while reading…

    But if the word’s meaning can be discerned from its context, then I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I’m sure that’s how I learned half the words I know.

    If a word’s meaning can’t be discerned from its context (as is sometimes the case with, say, obscure words for colours) I tend to just ignore it and move on.

  4. Ben, I also tend to guess meanings from the context (I’ll admit that when I do look up a word, it’s later… if I remember). The only problem with that is subsequent embarrassment if the guess turns out to be wrong…

    I’m reminded of The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  5. My list is pretty much like yours, Glenda, except I do know “messuages” and don’t know “truite bleu”. I’ve read that the average reading age in the general population is year 10 level, so it’s important, I think, as Ben says, that it be possible for readers to pick up the meanings of unusual words from the context or for it not to matter if they don’t get them at all.

  6. My didn’t know list was the same as yours, Glenda. I’m obviously not up to date with legal terms and I’ve never heard of ‘haled’.

  7. There are 4 words I either didn’t know or remembered but was unsure of. Given the amount of reading I do, I am surprised there were that many. Of course a Plimsoll line is a nautical term which I was brung up with LOL although you used the word mark instead of line which to me is more familiar. One of my least favourite words is gibbous, I have looked that word up a dozen times and I still can never remember what it means exactly. But I agree, don’t dumb down your literary compositions. Just write the way you intend and if people don’t understand it they can do any one of the things commented about here. To my mind reading is an excellent way of learning the language. Paradise enow comes from the Rubyat of Omar Khyam. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou beside me in the wilderness and wilderness were paradise enow. One of my favourite poems.

  8. There were three I had to check – one of those being lard, though I could guess the meaning from context (I don’t recall encountering it used as a verb before). And crammer’s still seems ambivalent to me, out of context.

    With TV extending vocabulary, I guess it really depends what programmes you watch. 😀

    Jo, yes, gibbous to me always sounds so unflattering…

  9. Out of interest, I wonder if many people still pick up a physical dictionary (i.e. a book) as I do, or do most people usually check online now?

  10. I do both, I have an Oxford English dictionary and an Encyclopaedia Brittanica one which is very comprehensive. If I am at the computer when I want to know a word, then I would use it to find out.

    Larding is a cooking term Ru, the practice has fallen somewhat out of duse, although funnily enough I was wishing I could do it the other day to some rather tough steaks we were eating. I had the appropriate needle, but no suitable fat or lard to use.

  11. Nothing replaces the published dictionary and thesaurus as far as I am concerned. e.g., the online – which is pretty good because it searches a number of different dictionaries – cannot find the word messuages. Which I understand is an outhouse of some sort (Correct, Satima?). I’ll bet I could find it in one of my dictionaries back home.

    When larding something, isn’t it more common to use bacon, Jo? And what is the needle – a skewer?

    Gynie – I cannot imagine trying to read Mann under those circumstances!

  12. It has been a very long time since I last opened a “real book” dictionary or thesaurus. The online equivalent is just too convenient, especially as I also typically check the etymology of particularly interesting words.

  13. Glenda, it is probably more common to use bacon fat, but also suet used to be used. As for a needle, you can use a darning needle to thread the fat through your meat.

    Re online, I just type what I want in google with definition after it and it comes up i.e. I just typed “messuages definition” and got the answer OK. Don’t bother to go to a dictionary site. What I got was:
    (Law) A dwelling house, with the adjacent buildings and curtilage, and the adjoining lands appropriated to the use of the household.
    They wedded her to sixty thousand pounds,
    To lands in Kent, and messuages in York.
    – Tennyson.

  14. I also tend to work out words using context and will only look them up if something doesn’t make sense to me. The “van” of an army is a good case in point… for some reason I thought it was related to the end of something, but I was reading a story where the hero wanted to ride in the van and it didn’t make sense that he wanted to be at the back *grin*. I use the internet dictionary because I almost always know where the computer is, but the chances of finding one book amongst all the stuff in this house??? Slim to none!!!

  15. Curtilage -The yard or garden basically.

    The area of land surrounding a dwelling within the property boundaries. This area may be fenced and may include garages or stand-alone workshops.

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