Big words, small words. For writers.

Dear reader – and especially writer. Because this post is intended for writers for a change.

What’s this odd title, you may wonder. Because you know the difference between BigwordsSmallwords

If you wonder about this then read on. Or better, read on anyway. This post originates in a little exchange I had with Ksenia Anske that I had not so long ago. We both are writing in English and for both of us English is not our native language. She’s Russian, I’m Dutch. We talked about learning new words and how to memorise and use them. There’s hardly anything wrong with that, right?

Then I started thinking broader. We’re writing in what is not our native tongue, but that also means that we (and you!) are writing for people for whom English is not their native tongue. And that thought brought the big words back to my attention. Big words are the ones that sophisticated, mostly well-read people like yourself know. You have seen those words before:

  • Intransigent (uncompromising, stubborn)
  • Debilitating (weakening, crippling)
  • Vociferous (loud, noisy)

Stuff like that. And there is a lot more of them. Of course, for most native English speakers these words would not present any problem. At least I assume so much although I have seen some shreds of evidence that this isn’t always the case.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Let me now turn the tables. You have mastered a fair amount of Russian and you pick up a book by your favourite Russian author, e.g. Dostoyevsky. And you try to enjoy the book. But then you run into these big Russian words that require a dictionary before you can enjoy the book. Words like калі ласка or здратвуите. (Bear with me, I have no idea what they mean as I only know a few Russian words. These are specifically for demonstrative purposes.) Would you still try to enjoy the book by your favourite Russian author? Or would you try to find a good translation in English so the reading isn’t so difficult?

Either way, what I want to say here is that using big, clever words isn’t always the smartest thing. Of course, it will show that you know them, but I suddenly realised (and this happened while I was waiting in line at the supermarket actually) that you should also take the grasp of words of your readers into account. If you plan to write for Harvard graduates only you can throw in the occasional profligate sycophant, but if you want to create something that all the world should be able to enjoy then keep in mind that all the world should be able to read your work without eating dictionaries for breakfast every day.

This doesn’t mean you should abstain from big words. Make things a bit interesting and challenging. Just don’t go overboard on them.

(By the way, a profligate sycophant is an extremely wasteful and highly immoral person who sucks up to others. I looked that up for you.)

 

Culture and language

Dear reader,

Have you ever noticed how tightly culture in many aspects and language are connected? A normal expression in one language doesn’t need to mean the same in another language – or even in a community that speaks the same language.

Language and Culture

How often, for instance, do you say (or hear someone say) that something is annoying as hell? That is something from your culture. Religion is part of someone’s culture and in the Christian religion there is a concept of hell as something unpleasant. Would you be surprised if saying that something is annoying as hell might offend people? There’s a small town in the north of Norway called Hell (see Wikipedia). Suppose you live in Palm Springs and you love it there. And then some plonker says that something is annoying as Palm Springs. Well, there you have it.

A very funny example of this is when you feel in seventh heaven. Did you know that this is not a Christian thing? Only in Judaism, Islam and Hinduism there are seven heavens. Christianity has only one and Paganism has the Summerland. It’s clear that the seventh heaven (which refers to the best of all heavens) is something that English and many other languages (this also exists in Dutch and German) borrowed from a different culture.

I hope you enjoyed this little banter into the world of language and culture. You may never know what you’re saying!

How odd language is

Dear reader,

You may not know more than one language. Usually that’s enough. Since I use more than one language I sometimes run into word combinations that make me wonder, smile and… wonder again.

silver

Today I was writing about people who had been seeking silver. I first thought they were silver seekers, but no, this would or could mean they were seekers made of silver while they’re very much human. In Dutch (my native tongue) or in German we’d simply glue the words together: silverseeker. But that’s not proper English. Hooray for the hyphen which allows me to make them silver-seekers.

Merry Christmas!

Weird wordification. Old skool.

Dear reader,

Welcome to another post in Weird wordification. This time I want to talk about something real that’s really not so real as it might look.

old skool

Probably everyone has heard the expression Old Skool. A reference to days gone by where walkmans (MP3-players with cassettes) ruled the street view. When there only were dumb phones with smart users (which doesn’t mean that smart phones nowadays have dumb users – have you ever tried to use one of those? Smart phones, I mean, not their users).

I am from that era. Actually I am from before that era, so one might call me ancient skool. Were it not… that I object to both these expressions. And why do I, you wonder?

In old and certainly ancient schools people learnt how to spell correctly. Old skool would have been properly named Old School back then.

Of course, my objections are overruled by the rest of the world, and I understand that. Old Skool is a modern expression, it bears no relation to the spelling taught in old schools. Is this something that casts shadows over ‘our’ language? It seems to happen.

A while ago I had an interesting discussion with someone from America who claimed that ‘b4’ is exactly the same thing as ‘before’. I tried to convince him that this is not an absolute truth, because I (being Dutch) first interpret this ‘b4’ as ‘bay veer’. French people may interpret it as “bay kah-tr”. Trust me: “bay veer” and “bay kah-tr” in either language has nothing to do with ‘before’. It’s all fine for everyone whose native language is English. Or people who’ve been subjected to this kind of acronym or shorthand long enough…

V. For Vocabulary, which is important to writers #AtoZChallenge

azbloggingV. Vocabulary

Dear reader,

I had a good, long thought about the letter V. Finally I decided on Vocabulary. Not very surprising maybe as that is one of the most powerful tools of a writer. It’s easy to jot down a sentence, but to add the proper ‘pizzazz’ to it, one needs to know the right words. A sentence has to say something, it has to bring you, the reader, into the state of mind that makes a story come alive. “Joe walks down the street” conveys exactly what Joe is doing, and where he does it, but this way he’s just an average Joe, a man in the street.

averagejoe

Did you see what happened just now? I used some specific vocabulary, drawing in some common expressions to give Joe some ‘body’. He’s not Joe the banker, he an ‘average Joe’. To make it even more obvious, he’s mostly a typical person, a ‘man in the street’. By simply using these common expressions (I am sure that most of you know them and even use them occasionally), I have given Joe some appearance, a social environment.

How different does it feel when you see “Mr Joe walks down the street”? Mr Joe. Well, that’s not your average Joe. This is probably someone who stepped out of the suit department. Isn’t it fabulous how much difference such a small word can make? This is where writers have most fun – and also most problems. What is the right word for a specific scene, situation, problem or person? And that question can come up for at least 25% of the words in a book. With a count of let’s assume 75,000 words for a book we’re talking about 18,750 times this question. What is the right word here? Of course it’s not always very dramatic but it can be. For that writers need a broad  vocabulary. And that gets worse when a story tells about a field that has a specific jargon. Usually a writer will have to dig deep to get the proper words out in the open, yet at the same time make the word clear to the people who are not into that field, so they know what the ‘bleep‘ this scientist, mechanic or quantum-physicist is talking about! Luckily this can be a lot of fun. 🙂 (Can be… 😉 )

15 most unbelievable words

Dear reader,

Do you sometimes wonder about words? Yes? Welcome to the club. No? Prepare to enter the club. Grammar.net once prepared a list with 15 unbelievable words in English. Here is the list:

Agerasia
(n.) A lack of the signs of old ages; a youthful old age
“The agerasia of that fellow is amazing; look at him darting around on those skates!”

Bayard
(n.) A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance
“Only a bayard would walk past that bull.”

Bed-swerver
(n.) An unfaithful spouse
“Phil refused to believe his wife was a bed-swerver.”

Fard
(v.) To paint the face with cosmetics, so as to hide blemishes
“My wife’s tendency to fard in the bathroom for an hour made us late.”

Gobemouche
(n.) One who believes anything, no matter how absurd
“That guy is a gobemouche–I told him that bull would not chase him, and he believed me.”

Hansardize
(v.) To show that a person has previously espoused opinions differing from the ones he or she now holds
“Tom hansardized Phil by showing us a letter Phil had written to him.”

Inadvertist
(n.) One who persistently fails to take notice of things
“I am an inadvertist when it comes to driving. I run over about 3 things a month.”

Killcrop
(n.) A brat who never ceases to be hungry, and was popularly thought to be a fairy that was substituted for the child
“Once upon a time, wicked faeries kidnapped a child and replaced it with an evil killcrop.”

Maritality
(n.) Excessive or undue affection on the part of a wife for her husband
“Marge’s maritality was driving Burt insane, so he went out with his buddies.”

Natiform
(adj.) Buttock-shaped
“The children giggled when they saw the natiform pumpkin.”

Obmutescence
(n.) The state or condition of obstinately or willfully refusing to speak
“The sullen boy glared at his mother in obmutescence.”

Plinyism
(n.) A statement or account of dubious correctness or accuracy, such as some found in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder
“Saying that the moon is made of cheese is pure plinyism.”

Quaresimal
(adj.) Said of a meal, having the qualities of food served during Lent; austere, skimpy
“We only had a few pieces of chicken, and after our quaresimal meal, we were still hungry.”

Scrouge
(v.) To inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close
“I was standing in the elevator when six other people got in, and one in particular scrouged me into a corner.”

Yepsen
(n.) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together also, the two cupped hands themselves
“The pond was nearly dry; barely more than a yepsen of water was left.”

Do you now feel ready to join the club?

Mind your words

Dear reader,

Have you ever noticed how much some words can sound alike and have a different meaning? It is surprising to me how many people have problems distinguishing between certain words.

For instance affect and effect. Quite often I encounter bits of text (even in edited books) where these two words are mixed up.

It didn’t effect me at all.

This of course is not correct. Something can not affect you, or not have an effect on you. Affect is a verb, effect is a noun. If something can effect you, then don’t be surprised when tomorrow someone will attempt to table you!

The same thing happens quite frequently with then and than.

Joe is bigger then Mike.

Poor Mike, you may think, but then is the word you use when you are talking about things happening over time. Than is the word for comparisons, so Joe may be bigger, but he’s bigger than Mike. But Mike may grow to be very big at some point in time, and then he may be bigger than Joe. I wonder how that will affect Joe…