What’s That Mean?

On the night of my tenth-year high school reunion (many years ago), I was crossing a dark street with some classmates on our way to a local bar where we could catch up on each other’s lives. We glanced both ways and, seeing no immediate traffic, stepped out into the street at a leisurely pace. Only there did we realize the car coming toward us was traveling at a faster pace than we’d anticipated. I said to the group, in my usual way, “Perhaps we should walk a bit more briskly.”

One of the women with the group turned an incredulous eye on me and barked with a laugh, “‘Perhaps? Perhaps?'” It took me a second to realize that she was taken aback by my manner of speech, not my trepidation at the speed of oncoming traffic.

How odd, I thought at the time. “Perhaps” is a common word. Why would she would mock my choice?

I never understood it.

Fast forward to 2020. I’ve passed the third draft of my current WIP—a medical spec-fic intended for an adult audience—to beta readers, several of whom flagged words in the draft which they did not recognize. (For the record, some of those words were: detritus, chiaroscuro, atoll, pareidolia, deleterious, and epigenetic.) Some of those—specifically chiaroscuro, pareidolia, and epigenetic—didn’t surprise me. The rest did. I’d thought them common words at the level of everyday language. It never occurred to me that they might be unfamiliar to an average adult reader. I mentioned this to a friend, who recommended I choose different words, or find some way to embed a definition of them in the surrounding narrative.

Okay. I can probably change chiaroscuro, and lose pareidolia, though doing so will take a shade of meaning out of the immediate moment in each of those scenes. For epigenetic (an essential word to the medical spec-fic narrative), I will need to be sure I use the surrounding narrative to clarify its meaning without actually defining it, since the characters using the term are both CDC professionals and would understand its meaning already. I’m not sure what to do about the rest.

It made me wonder how other writers determine their word choices. So I posted a query on Twitter to ask whether other writers avoid using “big words” or vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to a segment of their readership. The response was outstanding. Interestingly, about half said yes, they would avoid anything that made their readers reach for a dictionary, or that they themselves would put a book down if there were “too many” words they didn’t understand. To be fair, I suppose if there was a glut of polysyllabic profundity on every page, I probably would too.

But one comment—that using simpler language would widen the readership—may not be as on-point as it seems. I personally tend to favor books that are written at a higher reading level. I’m not interested in reading a textbook for enjoyment, mind, but I like learning new words and concepts. I prefer a reading experience that makes me think, especially if it leaves me pondering its plot and characters for days after the last page is turned.

So, apparently, did the other half of my respondents on the Twitter thread, who agreed that a book written at more basic reading levels felt “too simple” for them. I get it. I’ve read books where the story was entertaining, but I didn’t need to chew any of it. I could simply absorb and move on. No unnecessary thought required. Don’t get me wrong. I liked them. They were good escapist fare, and fun to devour while my brain was fried from writing or researching. Besides, not every reading experience needs to equal the difficulty of an El Capitan or even a Matterhorn ascent. Sometimes, an easy stroll across a gentle, grass-covered slope is just what a reader is looking for.

Still, is it necessary for writers to tone down the vocabulary?

This morning, I did a little research. The findings surprised me. According to a 2019 survey by the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, more than half of U.S. adults (52%) demonstrated basic or below-basic reading skills, what the PIAAC calls Level 2 literacy. That’s fourth- to fifth-grade level. Only 36% read at a Level 3 (intermediate) or sixth- to eighth-grade level. PIAAC used to have five levels; in their most recent survey, they combined Levels 4 (proficient, ninth- to tenth-grade) and 5 (eleventh-grade through college-level), because there were too few people in that fifth level to count.

The problem of falling literacy levels in this country is noteworthy, even used as fodder for humor by some. Comedian John Branyan uses a common fairytale to illustrate the gap by using a predictably extreme (and hilarious) comparison between Shakespearean English and contemporary U.S. speech. It’s worth a watch if for no other reason than the skill with which the writer revised the familiar tale, but be prepared to laugh.

The whole conversation got me thinking. How many other books I’ve read used words at the same Level (3, maybe?) as atoll, detritus, and deleterious? I decided to start paying attention. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve seen in just the last week or so.

The narrative of Blackfish City (a futuristic dystopia by Sam J. Miller) includes words like ignominy, buoyed, malentendu, fodder, alacrity, vacile, ignominious, abrogate, and scrim.

Altered Carbon (another futuristic dystopia, by Richard K. Morgan) uses recidivist, coaming, frisson, précis, archipelago, salubrious, depredation, gibbering, and piebald. (Oh, and detritus.)

From books in my past reading list:

Red Rising (dystopian science fiction by Pierce Brown): dregs, tutelage, maw, permutation, flagon, mete, supplication, meritocratic, faux, disengage, parapet, and recrimination.

Where Oblivion Lives (dark fantasy by T. Frohawk): dissuade, flotsam, vindication, garner, diatribe, bourgeois, articulate (the verb, not the adjective), glyph, Nephilim, and daimon.

Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune: ephemeral, feint, allude, pervasive, stupefy, subjugate, censure, allay, cavort, deride, dissemble, precept, redolent, pathos, mote, and visage.

The Overstory, literary fiction by Richard Powers: enumerate, pharynx, carillon, actuarial, rigor, stanch, abysmal, scriptorium, and feckless.

Note the pattern here? Most of what I read is speculative fiction with an occasional literary novel thrown in for a change of pace. I should mention that of all these words, there were a few I didn’t already know (specifically: malentendus, vacile, scrim, coaming, précis, abrogate, and carillon). This has less to do with my intelligence—believe me, there is an overabundance of common-sense everyday things about which I know/understand far too little—than it does my love of words. Who knows? Maybe my vocabulary comes from the fact that I have been reading books that included words I didn’t understand all my life, and my mom made me look them up rather than give me the meaning. Maybe it’s because I hang out with people who speak this way, and thus words like these don’t stand out in a book’s narrative any more than the words around them. Maybe it’s because I subscribe to two different word-of-the-day newsletters, and some of those words stick. I don’t know. It’s just part of who I am.

Several Twitter commenters said that normal people don’t use these words in everyday conversation. Perhaps not, but I do. I can’t believe I’m alone in that among readers of fiction. Thinking about all this made me wonder, though, whether vocabulary choices are tied to genres. I don’t really have any romances or historical fictions in my collection, but I did a quick search through a few of the mysteries on my shelves and found what I suppose the PIAAC would consider Level 2 language. Does that mean they’re too basic? Not at all. Some, like Tim Johnston’s The Current, are beautifully written in a poetic way that gives the novel a dreamy, homey feel authentic to the setting of the story.

And that’s an essential element to word choice decisions for a writer, too, is it not? Someone penning historical fiction must choose words common to the vernacular of the period/setting in which their story takes place, instead of contemporary terminology. In the same way, a romance writer or a police procedural novelist would choose language fitting the circumstances or settings of their unique stories. In my WIP, one character is a biochemical scientist. Another is a senior CDC investigator. Language in their conversations with peers is necessarily robust.

One final comment. Some responses in the Twitter thread—specifically from people who did not prefer Level 3+ language in the works they read and/or write—flat-out said that to use such words must mean the writer is trying to show off their intelligence. Believe me, that is not the case here. It’s just that some words articulate meaning (or shades thereof) much more aptly than others. For example, instead of “atoll,” I could have said “a ring-shaped reef, island, or chain of islands formed by coral.” Sure, I could have simply said “island,” but that doesn’t convey the whole meaning. All atolls are islands, but not all islands are atolls. Specificity (within reason) makes for a more precise scene description, a lower word count, and a more enriching reading experience.

It should be a given that this post only relates to books aimed at an adult readership. Obviously, when writing to YA, MG, or younger audiences, a simpler vocabulary would be better. (Though I still advocate throwing them a new word now and then. Does them good to look it up, and on e-readers, that requires only a tap on the screen.) It’s also hopefully understood that I speak only for my own tastes here, whether reading or writing. Everyone’s preferences differ, and there are markets for books of all language styles. Your mileage may vary.

Chime in! What’s your preference in leisure reading—easy vocabulary or more challenging word choices that introduce (a few) new words into your internal dictionary?

What??? by NDE
El Capitan in Yosemite, by PDPhotos
Girl with Dictionary, by libellule789
Maldives Atoll, by Suissgirl

All images courtesy of Pixabay

3 Replies to “What’s That Mean?”

  1. You made some excellent points and asked some great questions. As a writer, I don’t worry if the reader does not understand one or two words in an entire short story — especially if they are the correct words (correct to the writer in me who can be very picky about specific words). As you mentioned, with e-readers, all the person has to do is highlight the word and a meaning pops up. Still, most of the words you mentioned as challenging ones in books were not truly that to me. I feel sad that some thought “big words” was the writer showing off. Speaking again as a writer, I am saddened by that because words are as important to the story as color, pattern, and texture are to the fabric of clothing.

    As for whether “normal people” use certain language, I would surmise that certain words pop up in different regions. For instance, I have to look up a lot of words in Spike Lee’s films or in period fiction books. Does that make them less enjoyable? Not to me. In fact, Hamilton used the exact words of the founding fathers in places, yet that was and is a hit show. This is my long-winded way of saying, “it depends.” If I’ve been doing a lot of research, teaching and heavy counseling, I want lighter reading that I can whiz through in a day or two. Other times, I want something meatier.

  2. “[PIAAC] combined Levels 4 (proficient, ninth- to tenth-grade) and 5 (eleventh-grade through college-level), because there were too few people in that fifth level to count.”

    I need to think about something else; otherwise, I’m going to cry.

  3. My mom also made me look up words I didn’t know rather than tell me. She said if I took the time and made the effort to look them up myself, I’d remember them better. *Perhaps* most mothers feel they are teaching their children if they tell them rather than encouraging them to use their available resources and common sense – not realizing their nurturing is in fact crippling. Just a thought…

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