Just finished reading this post from Defective Yeti concerning the “100 words every high school graduate should know” as compiled by the editors of the American Heritage dictionary.
It’s a fun read, and Mr. Yeti compiled a neat Q&A application that allows you to test yourself on if/how well you know the listed words. For the record, I got 12 out of 20, even though I was close on many of those that I missed.
Anyway, being that I’m a word guy, I’m of two minds on things like this. First, I enjoy unusual and interesting words (I have a sub-folder in my email labeled “interesting words” where I dump the emails from Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day which I find, well, interesting) and I really enjoy odd words… for example, the word of the day for June 8th was “Thimblerig” (thimble-rig) which means, of course, “to cheat by trickery.”
But, on the other hand, I work with words every day and I know that the first law of good communication is “write clearly.”
I am constantly assaulted in the daily newspaper and magazines (Entertainment Weekly is an especially egregious offender) by writers who are clearly trying to be creative in their writing and make the cardinal sin of sacrificing clarity for the sake of a clever word or turn of phrase. I envision these writers are snobby elitists with a Skyy vodka Cosmo in one hand, and a thesaurus in the other.
And I look at this 100 words list and see the same thing.
I mean, I’m all for a healthy vocabulary. I had a journalism professor in college who had such a wide-ranging vocabulary that he often had to stop mid-lecture to confirm that we students understood what he had just said. But there’s a time and place for this and rarely is it on the printed page.
I mean, if you want to write a book about Edwardian England, then have at. But if you’re writing a movie review for the new “Transformers” movie, the just say what you mean, huh?
Looking at the list, I have to wonder about:
- Abstemious (ab-ste-mi-ous): 1 Eating and drinking in moderation. 2. Characterized by abstinence or moderation.
- Bowdlerize (bowd-ler-ize)To remove material that is considered offensive or objectionable from (a book, for example).
- Jejune (je-june) 1. Not interesting; dull. 2. Lacking maturity; childish. 3. Lacking in nutrition.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that all of the words above have certain shades of meaning, and would be used in different situations; just like “dumb” and “moronic” are the same, big-picture-wise, but are subtly different.
And, as a writer, I’m also tempted to mix it up. For example, in the paragraph above where I wrote, “I mean, I’m all for a healthy vocabulary. I had a journalism professor in college who had such a wide-ranging vocabulary…” I thought about replacing the second use of the word “vocabulary” with something else, like “lexicon,” perhaps, so it didn’t sound redundant. But I’m guessing that most people reading this didn’t even pick up on my repetition and, most importantly, my meaning was clear.
Boy, I’m not sure what got me going on this rant.
I realize that it might be jejune to many, especially those who wish I was a tad more abstemious in my decisions to write about the art of writing. I can only assure you that my lugubrious attitude concerning writing is not indicative of precipitous ideals or supercilious dogma; rather, I simply hope to recapitulate my hope for a quotidian return to clear writing and to enervate pompous jackanapes.
Do I make myself clear?