Posts Tagged ‘unusual words’

Can I have a word?

OK, today is a first for The Adventures of Danda and Yaya, a guest blog! A reader, known mysteriously as ‘The Rambler’ had the following to get off their chest, so I’ll hand over to them now. (Feel free to send in a guest blog too, if you wish, and I’ll put it up).

I’m sure you’ve heard “Can I have a word?” before and you know what it’s a prelude to: you’re going to getting a telling off something you’ve done wrong. But here’s a less well-known phrase, which I will explain more fully as I go on.

Dixeris egregie notum si callida verbum
Reddiderit iunctura novum (Horace, 65BC-8BC)

I can see a few of you nodding your heads but for those who don’t know it translates to:
“You will have written exceptionally well if, by skilful arrangement of your words, you have made an ordinary one seem original”. All should become clear. Read on…

Have you ever read a book and come across words you don’t know the meaning of? I have – many times actually. Does that mean my vocabulary is bad or that the author’s is just very good? (Or are they just using a Thesaurus?) For some years now I have kept a notebook in which I write words I could not explain to someone else at the time I read them. I had imagined I might pick up a few words, to expand my own vocabulary, by those somewhat more erudite than myself. I never imagined how full that notebook would become in the space of just a few years.

However, sometimes you just wish authors had used a word you could understand. For instance there is an Irish travel writer, whose books I do enjoy, who tends to use a number of words not in everyday use. Maybe that’s part of being an author. I don’t know about you but reading of carmine, mellifluously & cordillera had me heading to the dictionary. Now, I know what they mean but will I ever use them myself – probably not. As words are about communication why not use a more common word. Some may feel good when they use more unusual words but they’re certainly not communicating very well are they? Here are some more examples from my notebook (which recently acquired its 700th entry):

1. In just the first 10 pages of a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson there were the following: picayune, panglossian, adumbrated, epigone, catopric & gallimaufry and, by the end of the book, (I’m not joking) just over another 100 I didn’t know! Hands up who got those six meanings right. If you’re interested you’ll have gone and looked them up but….. somehow I doubt it.
2. A biography of Whistler produced: peremptory, lucubrations, orpiment, alembic, cozened & another 50.
3. A book on the history of Liverpool gave me: autarky, chevroth, diorama, hegemonic, miscegenation, propinquity & many more.
4. Even the Daily Mail, over the past 12 months, came up with a few: pemmican, contumely, egregious, nary, palimpsest.

A word which I’ve come across a few times now, in different books, is sesquipedalian. (Pronounced sess-kwipi-day-lee-an). Any ideas?

It means tending to use long words or polysyllabic ( Do I detect the teensiest bit of irony there? Slip that one into your next conversation with friends and see how they marvel at your great knowledge! (Example: “I was talking with Bill/Sue the other day and he/she was just so sesquipedalian”; perhaps slip in a “like”, “boss” or “init” to sound a bit more streetwise).

Can I have a word? It looks like the authors’ answer is “Yes, you can and you can have lots of them and you won’t know what they all mean and some of them might be quite long!” (Unless you look them up in a dictionary these writers are not actually communicating with you are they? If you don’t understand what they’re saying what’s the point of using them?)

What’s going on here? Let me think (or contemplate, or cogitate, or ponder, or reflect) ….. I think that they think that writing like this is going to make people think they’re clever because they’re using big or unusual words. Now I’m not against a bit of improving your knowledge (otherwise I wouldn’t have that notebook would I?) or proposing that everyone should read elementary level books but I shouldn’t be having to stop and check words every few pages. That’s not communication – is it?

Let me put it another way – the legal speed limit, for a car, on the road in this country is 70mph and suppose there is a car which can reach 200mph what’s the point of that extra 130mph? You can’t use it. These writers may have a literary Ferrari, in terms of their word knowledge, but I reckon most of us are probably still a way short of the literary equivalent of the 70mph so… please can I have an ordinary word?

Perhaps it’s worth remembering the words of Samuel Johnson: “Don’t, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters” (from Boswell, Life of Johnson p.471). Well said, or should I say excellently elucidated!