Unfamiliar Words Attract Some, Explanations Repel Others

A follow-up to Lapidary But Not Eristic, But Still Obscure, offering observations from my friend Matthew Boudway, an editor at Commonweal, and my responses. Matt wrote:

Thanks for this. I may not be a typical reader, but two or three unfamiliar words (short or long) don’t necessarily put me off an article. In some cases, they may even be an enticement to continue. Here, I think, is a writer who has something to teach me — about my own language if nothing else. But not all unfamiliar words are created equal. Some are just unusual near-equivalents of words we all know; it’s the showoffs who use these, and Fowler is right to condemn them.

But then there are the writers, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who know all the words for things. Reading such an author can be hard going, since he or she keeps sending you to the dictionary, but you usually return with the sense that the trip was worthwhile, with the sense of discovery: aha! So there’s actually a word for that, often a good word, often a short one. Buckley’s sesquipedalian flourishes were nearly the opposite of this. Waugh has a small collection of favorite unusual words, most of them Latinate, that he uses again and again just because he likes the way they sound, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I have a little more sympathy for Buckley than does Matt, though I also sometimes find his sesquipedalian flourishes (good one, Matt!) annoying. The writer ought to do what he can to keep some words in use, something like those people in England who annually walk down rights of way to make sure the legal right of public passage doesn’t lapse. And he will take pleasure in using just the right word even if that word is an unusual one. I like and use the word “lapidary” (as in the title of the website) which is the word to which the critical editor objected. There’s not another word that says quite the same thing.

Matt’s second observation:

Your Anaximander example made me think of something Louis Menand said at a conference for academic writers who wanted to learn how to write for nonacademic readers. “You have to devise a way of saying something completely obvious without making it sound as though you’re talking down to people. So, if you write a sentence in the sort of standard magazine style—say, something like ‘Charles Sanders Pierce, the nineteenth-century American philosopher . . . ‘ — that’s talking down to people because you’re assuming that they don’t have any idea who Charles Pierce was. But you don’t want to assume that. You want to make them feel they had heard of Charles Pierce and they kind of know who Charles Pierce is. So you say, ‘Like many nineteenth-century American philosophers, Charles Pierce had a Beard.’ Then they think, ‘Oh yeah, I knew he was a nineteenth-century American philosopher.’ It’s not that you’re not explaining everything; it’s that you’re explaining everything in a way that sounds by the way.”

Menand has a point. The writer who explains things always risks talking down to readers and can do very easily and entirely unwittingly. The writer should work a bit at conveying the information he has indirectly, though it’s hard to do this a lot without looking like you’re going out of your way not to talk down to them or padding your writing with unnecessary information, as in Menand’s example.

But I think his advice may also reflect the fact that when he writes for a general readership he writes for The New Yorker and its peers and that magazine’s readers know more than the average general reader. Or feel that they do. They don’t read The New Yorker to have their sophistication challenged. They feel they’ve been talked down to even when, as a matter of what they really know, they haven’t been.

But other readers, including I’m sure many readers of The New Yorker, are surprisingly humble. Seeing this after I began writing and editing was one of the insights that most surprised me. Many seem to feel that they don’t know enough or aren’t smart enough for the matters being discussed. They will try to read in the hope that they’re wrong, but they are easily convinced — by too many obscure words, for example — that they are right.

Whether this humility is always genuine or a cover for indifference or laziness I don’t know, but as far as I can from conversations it is very often genuine.

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