Sunday, 3 June 2007

More words, part II

My previous post was triggered not by the thought of the great number of words out there that I don't know about. Rather, it was more about learning new words but not having the chance to use them and slowly over time forgetting about them. There are many times when I see a word that I know I've looked up its meaning in the dictionary but could not remember what it is.

If you pick up the current English newspapers, you'll likely to see the word "indelible" being mentioned. It appears in the news about the Election Committee's (EC) proposal to use indelible ink (and the voter's thumbprint) as a way to ensure the integrity of the election process. Indelible ink is said to be used in countries like Iran and India.

What's another word for "indelible"? "Unerasable".

I'm sad to mention that I had to recheck the word's meaning when I saw it, although I've encountered it before.

This is a Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper I downloaded back in 2005. It has the word "indelible" on it, proof that I've came across the word already. And just after 2 years, I had flip through the dictionary again.

Getting back to the news, the use of indelible instead of unerasable is quite understandable. Indelible is a more technical and formal term, while unerasable is a more literal one.

It is also a dilemma for a writer (i.e. anybody who writes something) to choose words, either the uncommon or a common substitute. Regarding this I would like to share a short excerpt from an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Mr. Difficult (2002). I've read one of his novels and he does use tons of uncommon words. The essay's early parts are Franzen's reflection on the matter.
For a while last winter, after my third novel came out, I was getting a lot of angry mail from strangers... A few month later, one of the original senders, a Mrs. M–– in Maryland, wrote back with proof that she'd done the reading. She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like "diurnality" and "antipodes", phrases like "electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces." She then posed the dreadful question: "Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read." And she offered this caricature of me and my presumed audience:

the elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don't smoke, have abortions triyearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper's and the The New Yorker.

The subtext seemed to be that difficulty in fiction is the tool of socially privileged readers and writers who turn up their noses at the natural pleasure of a "good read" in favor of the invidious, artificial pleasure of feeling superior to other people. To Mrs. M––, I was "a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole".

One part of me, the part that takes after my father, who admired scholars for their intellect and large vocabularies and was something of a scholar himself, wanted to call Mrs. M–– a few names in reply. But another, equally strong part of me was stricken to learn that Mrs. M–– felt excluded by my language. She sounded a bit like my mother, a life-long anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical "average person." My mother might have asked me if I really had to use words like "diurnality," or if I was just showing off.

(Mr. Difficult is part of Franzen's collection of essays, How To Be Alone. The very lovely Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper above is by Tama-Neko of desktop anime (da!), who thinks indelible sounds cooler than unerasable and that it rolls off the tongue smoother.)


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