Unusual Diction

A second item continuing the discussion in Lapidary and Obscure. Another friend, Robert Young, Donne scholar and editor of Modern Age, responded to my comments on Buckley’s use of obscure words. He said:

I am probably a bit more indulgent with unusual diction than you, because I think that there is a useful educational function in expanding the lexicon of the “average” reader and keeping words in circulation that otherwise may die.  This of course must be done with tact and moderation, and the “long” or unusual word must actually add meaning and be used correctly and with real purpose.  “Societal,” when “social” will do, seems merely pompous to me.

And then there are all those words and expressions that are simply abused by the quarter-educated.  Have you noticed, for example, how often “begs the question” is used when the writer really means “raises the question,” with no awareness of the phrase’s actual designation of an invalid argument?  The local paper here actually had a passage in the sports section about the trade of a professional athlete that “begs the rhetorical question . . . !”

Buckley’s “lapidary,” on the other hand - as you point out  was exactly the right word in its context.  Very often, I think, he was also just being arch  a part of his persona  as when he deployed that appalling phrase from Voegelin, “immanentizing the eschaton.”

Once Robert had pointed it out, I saw the need to keep more complex and interesting sentences in use, as well as keeping in use words that might die otherwise. People with the gifts to do so well have to stretch the average reader. He will read writers whose insight can only be conveyed in a complicated sentence and often a bunch of them in a row. He needs to be supple enough to stretch.

That’s one of the things I tried to do in a small way in the “While We’re At It” section of First Things, by writing the occasional very long or unusually complicated sentence or putting parts of the sentence in unexpected places. I enjoyed the game and I hope the reader enjoyed it as well. The trick is knowing how far to stretch him so that he won’t react and shrink back up.

Probably my experience editing academics writing for more general readers has made me cautious. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, often the wrong mile for their own purposes.

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