December 1, 2013

"In newsrooms there is little patience for the use of a difficult word where a simpler one will do."

"'Good prose is like a windowpane,' wrote George Orwell in his famous essay 'Why I Write,' a rule that would seem to counsel against ever stopping a reader with an unfamiliar word. It’s good advice for beginners, but serious readers are also lovers of language. I find that the occasional obscure word, used correctly, spices prose."

From an essay in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden, titled "In Praise of Fancy Words: The pleasures of reading with a dictionary by one's side."

I usually read on a computer or iPad screen, so the dictionary is built in, but in simpler times, I liked the exercise of getting up and walking over to the dictionary stand to look up any unfamiliar word. I keep a picture of my grandfather on the wall just above that dictionary:

Howard Beatty

He was a newspaper editor, and in his spare time, he enjoyed reading a dictionary.

And here's the full text of Orwell's "Why I Write."

43 comments:

The Drill SGT said...

Mark Bowden, an excellent writer. Best known for "Blackhawk Down"

rhhardin said...

The Quintessential Dictionary is the best reading.

A thousand words which, if learned, allow you to read Buckley without looking anything up.

Entertaining citations.

Make flash cards.

rhhardin said...

Unfamiliar words are good for passive aggression against officialdom.

Make them look it up.

Joe said...

Mark Bowden is interesting in that while he's a good write, he's an even more compelling commentator in documentaries on the same subjects as his books.

Biff said...

It's about taste and judgment. In general, Orwell's advice is correct, but a writer shouldn't hesitate to use a difficult or relatively unfamiliar word if the word enhances the rhythm and melody of the text, especially if the meaning of the word might reasonably be inferred from the context.

Basically, Orwell recommends writing for effect, not affect, and that remains sound advice.

Biff said...

PS. Great photo.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Big words are OK now, because Buckley stopped using them.

fivewheels said...

Sometimes a "fancy" word is a more precise word. But you have to write to your audience. In a newsroom, you should be writing for a very broad audience of varying education. Dumbing things down isn't a crime when you, frankly, want to include dumb people. It's the right thing to do.

In books, you write what you want. Seems obvious. But there are those who want to banish "unnecessary" words altogether, from any writing, and those are the villains. They're the ones who just don't like how they (or their favored groups) scored on the SAT verbal.

pm317 said...

When I graduated from my 4-year engineering degree for an engineer's job in an Indian company in India, we had a written test like GRE before an interview and I remember two words in particular: 'vituperative' and 'pejorative'..

For GRE, you had to know difficult words. My husband, when he prepared for that test, he made a tape of a whole dictionary and he would play it on his commute everyday which was one hour long -- Charlottesville to Culpeper (yep, he made sacrifices so I could go to UVa) and needless to say he aced his verbal on GRE.

At UVa, one professor used the word avuncular in a class saying he exempted international students like me I( and a couple of others in the class) knowing what it meant but I did know what it meant. So yeah, the non-native English speaker here knows a thing or two about difficult words.

The Godfather said...

Buckley's use of fancy words seems to have come naturally to him, but it was also a good tactic, because in the 1950's conservatives were thought of as narrow, ignorant, and uneducated, and also dull. WFB,Jr. was none of these things. His use of fancy words also appealed to college and post-college types, who needed to be recruited into the conservative movement.

Orwell was often wrong about politics (he thought that democratic socialists, and only democratic socialists, could cure the problems that he saw in the world. He could not have imagined a Thatcher or a Reagan). But he was a GREAT prose writer. One will rarely go wrong following his advice. But he was writing about writing in a particular place and time, when writers too often used obscure words to impress, rather than inform, their readers. I'm reading the second book of Atkinson's trilogy right now, and when he uses unusual words you don't have to look them up, but they catch your attention. That's good, and I think Orwell would have approved. In particular, I think he would have approved of "gutful", which has a strong Anglo-Saxon sound.

ALP said...

Christopher Hitchen's books are the ones that send us running for the dictionary...

That man is responsible for teaching me more new words than any other.

madAsHell said...

Agreed.
Nice photo.
I understand why you keep the photo.

I hung my grandfather's electrical engineering diploma (U. of Nebraska, 1914) where my son could see it while watching TV.

Naah...it didn't work. He never finished college.

Anglelyne said...

Biff: PS. Great photo.

Ditto.

fivewheels said...

Vocabulary is easy to build if you just read. And it almost doesn't matter what you read.

Years ago, some magazine put out a list of 100 words you should know but probably don't. I knew 99 out of 100. One of my co-workers found that hard to believe, and she asked where I could have come across some of them.

I will always remember these examples because of the true answers:

Ziggurat: Mad Magazine.
Obsidiean: X-Men.

fivewheels said...

Aargh, typo in obsidian.

St. George said...

There's a certain fingerspitzengefuhl about a dictionary, but they're not as irrefragable as I once thought.

Lem said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FullMoon said...

My eighth grade history teacher would teach us 3 or 4 unusual words a week, with instructions to use them on the incoming class.... something to do with their doltish behavior.

pm317 said...

Althouse, are you the first lawyer in your family?

William Chadwick said...

One of the pleasures of reading H. L. Mencken is his use of (to me) odd or "fancy" words, often humorously. Of course, Mencken wrote when educated people seem more educated than they are now (before colleges became corporate kindergartens and you actually had to read books to graduate), so maybe his vocabulary wasn't as "fancy" back then as it appears now.

William Chadwick said...

One of the pleasures of reading H. L. Mencken is his use of (to me) odd or "fancy" words, often humorously. Of course, Mencken wrote when educated people seem more educated than they are now (before colleges became corporate kindergartens and you actually had to read books to graduate), so maybe his vocabulary wasn't as "fancy" back then as it appears now.

traditionalguy said...

Interesting. Words are amazing things. I do read an etymological dictionary for fun. The base idea behind a root word keeps on keeping on through usages and translations...it is alive.

traditionalguy said...

Ca 500 years ago was a great time for words. In 12 years the Authorized Version of the Bible and Shakespeare's Firts Folio were compiled and published.

Paco Wové said...

pm317: I assume from your writing that you're from the subcontinent, in which case I would argue that many Indians do in fact count as 'native' English speakers.

FleetUSA said...

A perfect memory with that picture.

pm317 said...

Paco Wové said...
-----------

If you equate Indlish to English, but the English will be offended. You are right to the extent that no two Indians speak the same language but are able to converse in broken English, er.. Indlish.

The English language is at least one good thing that happened from the British occupation.

Funny story.. we were in Nice and I go to this sailboat office to buy tickets to go to Monte Carlo.. and the office looked closed and there was a woman sitting on the doorstep and I asked her 'do you speak English?' and she was so offended and said in a huff "we ARE English".. (how could I know, you are on French land)..

JC said...

Twain: "Use the right word, not its second cousin".

Ann Althouse said...

"Althouse, are you the first lawyer in your family?"

Yes.

JC said...

But then Twain also said (wrote) "eschew obfuscation".

JC said...

Sometimes the words make a point of their own.

pm317 said...

I am the first engineer in our family and my dad was very proud of that.

EDH said...

Not everyone is fond of their Grandpa.

"He looks like an important man..."

pm317 said...

He also had a superpower: the ability to open up any book and find a typo.

This line was in the link Althouse has pointing to her older post and 'he' is the grandfather. I think that superpower was all about pattern recognition -- he knew the right way the words looked that he could easily hone in on the one that didn't look right.

Beldar said...

Long or short is not the issue.

Whether the word sings or not is the issue.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

In newsrooms there is little use for simple sentences.

Active subjects need to be obscured by abuse of the passive voice, inanimate objects 'fail' to perform actions, while the inclusion of three or more persons in the root sentence and ancillary phrases makes determining of proper antecedent for pronouns a needlessly difficult task, things have a "usage" rather than a "use", someone who comments in not a "commenter" but rather is a "commentator", the use of double possessives such as "a friend of Mary's" is rampant, the editorial standard being to have only one great long sentence per paragraph.

traditionalguy said...

Pat Conroy is a contemporary of mine and a southern writer who uses words as well as any writer alive.I just read his latest about his family called The Death of Santini. Get it on Althouse Kindle.

jacksonjay said...


All of these fancy smancy writer types have been knocking themselves out for a month now!

They have painstakingly avoided the simple word, "liar"!

Michael said...

You have to use a fancy word the way Mencken did, which is to say, even if you didn't know what it meant, the music of the word was so melodious and clear in what it sounded like that it didn't matter that you didn't know the definition until that moment.

Crazy Jane said...

Mencken's post-high school education consisted of a single correspondence course. Like many of the best, he was an autodidact. (Look that one up for a start.)

John Lynch said...

I don't need a dictionary. Context is enough. If it isn't, it's bad writing.

I do appreciate a thesaurus, though.

John Lynch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

I used "tangential" in a meeting once, and a manager yelled at me, "Speak English!"

MadisonMan said...

I laughed when I read about your Grandfather's superpower.

The other day, I received an email from an outfit that puts together glossy publications, aimed (as far as I could tell) at people who love to be self-promoting (so their email to me was hopelessly off the mark). They sent an example, and the first thing I saw in the pdf when I opened it was a typo. Don't recall the word now, only that it erroneously had an 'e' where an 'a' should have been.

That and the $3000/page charge for "helping" me with layout, etc., was kind of off-putting.