My partner has a love affair with words.
Every time he comes across a word that he doesn’t know the definition of, or is used in an unexpected way, he writes it down in his little word book. He carries that thing with him everywhere, in case a strange and wonderful word pops up. Everyday, he takes two or three of these words and shares them (with their definitions) on Twitter. And since his Twitter is activated on my iPhone, I’m constantly getting buzzed with people liking or retweeting his words… it seems oddly popular.
To help him in this, I write down weird words I come across — and since I read a LOT, I come across a lot of words, particularly in the classics I read. Some of those words are outdated or archaic, no longer in use. One of my recent reads was The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the weird words were all over the place. I got a list of something like a hundred words. It was a fun exercise.
Then one of my next reads was a science fiction book published in the last couple years. There were a dozen or so weird words in there, too. Some of them, when I looked them up, were described by the dictionary as “outdated” or “archaic.”
It got me thinking about word choice. There’s a place for an expansive and unique vocabulary, and there are times when that’s inappropriate or ill-advised.
I’ve been reading through the Game of Thrones series of books (A Song of Ice and Fire) and George RR Martin has me running to the dictionary quite often. Martin’s obscure word choices or unusual definitions are well-suited to the epic fantasy genre. The genre is known for expansive books and middle age worlds. There’s a grandiose feel to the genre and unusual and rare words are a suitable fit.
I feel they are greatly out of place in general science fiction. (I used the modifier “general” as there are exceptions to each and every statement.) The book I was reading was set in about the 2300s, in a very modern and futuristic era, and the author regularly used words rooted in Greek and Roman mythology. I thought that was a bit strange, but I rolled with it — it’s just the author’s style. Then there were a few bizarre words that had me scrambling for the dictionary — and those words were denoted as “outdated” and “archaic.”
Ancient words in a futuristic world bring the reader (well, me, anyway) out of the narrative. They read to me as the author showing off his knowledge.
This author also overuses archaic and unusual words. Tip: the more unusual the word, the more it’ll stick out when repeated. This author is a fan of the words susurrous and Stygian — when those pop up more than once, the reader notices — and this author uses them half a dozen times per novel.
The words on the page should be unnoticeable. It’s an interesting thing. We want readers to love our words and be enthralled by our stories. But if they are pulled out of the narrative because of an ill-timed word or a bit of a clumsy sentence, then that is very bad. We want our words and sentences to blend into the background. They should carry the reader along on this epic journey, but still be somewhat unnoticeable.
Word choice has to fit the genre. For epic fantasy, obscure and historical words are fine and probably desirable (but probably not words derived from Greek and Roman mythology, as that wouldn’t fit the world you’ve created). Medical and mystery books should be filled with technical description that would be out of place in most other writing. Science fiction should have clean and smooth writing, sleek and futuristic.
Words are the tools of our craft. Without them, we cannot create stories. But they are not one-size-fits-all tools. They are highly specialized and unique… intricate and delicate. They must be used with care and precision.