Sunday, July 06, 2014

Secret Word Duck - Use and Misuse of Million-Dollar Words

I've been reading a book called Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. I have never had to look so many words up in the dictionary as I read. It's positively giving me a complex. I've begun to wonder if I've lost more braincells than I thought in my middle-aged years. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but this book tosses around the million dollar words right and left without context clues, and often with no real justification for using the fancy word when a simpler one would do.

This makes me wonder about that small but potent animal, word choice. In my classroom, I talk about "juicy words." Juicy words are words you can sink your teeth into and savor, words that make the writing jump and sing, words that are saturated with voice. Sometimes, they are words that stand out.

Now, standing out isn't always a bad thing. When you're a diva singing a solo, standing out is your job. On the other hand, when you're singing harmony in a quartet, or you're part of a choral group, standing out is a problem. It's the same with juicy words. Sometimes, they should stand out and make the reader stop, ponder, take notice. In my opinion, this is especially true for poetry, descriptive passages, and certain moments in prose - moments that need to breathe or shock or freeze.

Juicy words aren't always the same as what my younger self would call "big words." Now, I LOVE to learn new big words. I love them best when they capture an idea that eludes my existing lexicon, when they lend brevity to a thought and make it clearer. I love them least when the distance they create between me and my reader, or, if I am the reader, then me and the text, is so great that it becomes the focus of attention, at the expense of meaning or narrative or the thread of thought.

In my opinion, Mr. Savage fell into the latter category in a few places. I have forgotten more of his million dollar words than I remember, and, frankly, I wasn't impressed with them enough to put them in my own toolbox. However, I shall credit him with adding  prelapsarian and ambit to my vocabulary.

"Prelapsarian" describes a state similar to the state of Adam and Eve before the fall. It is built of word parts that fit its meaning, and that I recognize ("pre" - before, and "lapse", as in a lapse of memory - a slip or fall). In one word, it captures a complex and resonant idea that carries with it a collection of cultural images and baggage. I like that about "prelapsarian."

"Ambit" refers to a sphere of influence. It carries the notion of how far something or someone's reach may extend. Best of all, and what I love about it, is that it is the root word of "ambition." This is interesting to me because I am, clearly, a word derivation geek. Plus, I love the idea that this root word is so simple in its structure that an early or struggling reader in my classroom could decode the basic consonant-vowel-consonant pattern of its two parts, and yet it is so underused and uncommon. Simple yet rare. Like an exotic orchid. Or a perfect kiss. Thinking about the relationship between this simple creature and its three-syllable, muscle-bound, popular offspring "ambition" creates a fascinating harmony of contemplation in my brain.

Juicy words. They come in all shapes and sizes. Use sparingly and wisely, with empathy and compassion for your reader and awareness of the impact on pacing and distance.

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