Vocabulary and Word Choices

The other week at work, I heard an announcement for a Miss Ginger Lee to meet her party at a specified location. I thought about the announcement for a moment, then turned to a co-worker and told him I thought it might be a prank. After all, Ginger Lee, gingerly?

He had no idea what I was talking about. I decided fair enough, he wasn’t a native English speaker and it wasn’t a common word. So I mentioned it to another co-worker, an older woman who to the best of my knowledge is a native English speaker. She didn’t know what I was talking about either.

Is ‘gingerly’ that uncommon a word? I truly couldn’t say. I don’t think it terribly uncommon, and have actually read a story that had that word in use since. Personally, I think it’s a very useful word. I described it as ‘like how you carry eggs’. Would I hesitate to use ‘gingerly’ in my own writing? No, I wouldn’t.

What vocabulary level should you use when writing? Is it our job as writers to be clear and concise without room for error; or to teach and elevate the mind to new words and ideas? While both can be desired, at some point you have to compromise one for the other.

I read a lot. I live in a family where everyone reads a lot. My father in particular loves to use grandiose words. But large sections of my vocabulary come from reading. You can tell which sections because those are the words I don’t know how to pronounce. Does that mean that as a writer, I should be striving to teach new words?

Answer: I don’t know. I think it’s very much a careful balance. You can’t talk down to your readers, they will know and resent it. But if you try to show off by using verbal flourishes and extravagant words, they’ll resent that too. And nobody is going to sit down, reading your book with a dictionary beside them so they can look up the dozen strange words you sprinkle on every page. They will either guess, ignore them, or more likely, stop reading.

Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was the difference between lightning and lightning bug. So my suggestion is that you use what you believe to be the right word. If some people learn a new word, great. If your readers already understand, that’s great too.

An article I read years ago, can’t remember where or what the title was, said that the more advanced the text, the smaller the audience. It was specifically talking about poetry. Robert Frost has many fans (I’m one of them), because his poetry is easy to read and has themes that are understandable to many people. T. S. Eliot has many fewer fans (again, I’m one of them) because his poetry is so much harder to read and understand.

So, you want to write something that is at the pinnacle of wordplay and vocabulary? Well, why? If you want to write it because that’s what you enjoy, than go for it. Just be aware that your audience may be small. If you want to write it because it shows how smart you are? I’d avoid that.

Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to use a word that you are not absolutely sure of the definition. Ever. To paraphrase ‘How Not to Write a Novel’ (awesome writing guide, really) Ask yourself ‘do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know the word. And someone else will know the word, and know your mistake.

Be aware of connotation and denotation. For those who haven’t used those words since high school English class; denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is what people think about when they hear it. I see infamous and notorious used a lot. Sometimes supposed to be a good thing. But dictionary definition of infamous flat out says, known as evil. Notorious has a similar connotation, but can have a milder denotation.

How do you know if your vocabulary is unusual? After all, you’ve been using it all the time. Check with others, particularly others who are not people you associate with all the time. The people who run in the same circles as you do, probably have similar vocabularies.

How about characters? Can they have fancy vocabularies? Absolutely. But make it fit. An English Professor will speak differently than someone who dropped out of high school. Someone who uses elaborate words to show off will use different words than someone who uses elaborate words because they like the sound of them. Children will develop their vocabularies based on those around them. So even a very young child can have an extensive vocabulary if that is what they are being taught.

Next time, we’ll talk about regionalism, dialects, jargon and slang.

P.S. It turned out not to be a prank. She came through my line, and I saw her ID. Ginger-lee (Last name withheld).

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