The charm of the large word

A delightful and intriguing title for a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: The Charm of the Large Word.

When I see a blog title like this, I instantly stop and think of particularly wonderful long words. Perspicacity! Quintessential! Brobdingnagian! (I don’t believe I have ever used that last one personally. I had to look up how to spell it.)

Anyway, by all means, let’s see which long words get picked out in this post …

To earn its place in a text, a big word must be two things: the right word and the best word.

It’s the right word if its meaning is what you intend.

It’s the best word if using it reduces your overall word count.

Well, okay. By all means, only use words you understand! If a word’s meaning is not what you intend, well, oops! I am now, almost involuntarily, thinking of the (popular, successful) fantasy novel where the author used the word parameters when she meant (probably) perimeter. I am still astonished that no copy editor caught that — and more astonished if the copy editor DID catch that word, but the author steted it back to the wrong word. Anyway, yes, the point is, only use words if you know what they mean!

Reducing the overall word count … okay, that’s fine, if you really want to reduce the overall word count. Not sure this strikes me as super important (unless you have a hard limit for the word count, I guess).

I guess, actually, I’d take that Rule 1 without argument, but for Rule 2, I’d go with:

It’s the best word if it best suits the rhythm of the sentence and the tone of the story.

For example, chatoyant is a great word. I used it a couple of times in The Floating Islands, for the eyes of the dragons:

Great heads as fine boned and delicate as a bird’s, chatoyant eyes glimmering with pale opalescent colors 

Replacing chatoyant with reflective of light would hardly improve that description. Chatoyant isn’t the better choice because it’s one word instead of three or more. It’s the better choice because it’s way more artistic.

The author of the linked post adds:

One of the English language’s most beautiful features is its many words, each with a shade of meaning ever so slightly distinct from its next nearest relative. This feature lets us write with precision, which gives our ideas clarity, which improves communication, which is, after all, the point of prose.

To which I would say, yes, clarity is important, but precision of meaning doesn’t just improve the clarity of prose. In addition to improving clarity, precise words that are also beautiful improve the elegance and artistry of prose.

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1 thought on “The charm of the large word”

  1. It’s one thing I love about (written) English, the precision of nuance and atmoshere you can convey with such a large vocabulary.
    I may not always get it right when speaking, but it greatly enriches the reading experience.

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