Friday, December 15, 2006

At What Price, Vocab?

A Lesson in Lexical Conviction
from Madeleine L'Engle

Walking on Water, Madeleine L'EngleComing off a knock-down, drag-out battle with my final exams, I picked up Walking On Water, Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L'Engle. It's a kind of therapy. This is from page 36:
We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually. Yet another reason why [A Wrinkle in Time] was so often rejected is that there are many words in it which would never be found on a controlled vocabulary list for the age-group of the ten-to-fourteen-year-old. Tesseract, for instance. It's a real word, and one essential for the story.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'EngleOf course, the saga turned out well for L'Engle, who saw Wrinkle not only get published, but go on to become a Newbery Medal winner and win an enduring place in American children's (and adult) literature. But going in, she couldn't have known that success waited on the far side of a non-compromise. This is what you call strength of lexical conviction.

Would any of you adopt this strategy if you had multiple publishing houses pleading with you to make your writing "communicate better to a wider audience?" The latter half of that sentence doesn't apply to me at this point in my career, but this is something I'm turning over. The question should also be viewed with the help of G.K. Chesterton's counter-perspective:
Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable… The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.

So then, put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring author. Then ask, Is "tesseract" worth it? I await your opinions.

Cross-posted on BitterSweetLife.

The VRP is an SOB

And That's Good News

Liz at Successful Blog, recently recognized as one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers, has made it official: The Vocabulary Reclamation Project is an SOB, and all who are associated with it share in the infamy. Care to elaborate, Liz?
The SOB for Successful and Outstanding Blogger was my own– a bit of mischief to underscore our sense of irreverence and openness in discussions. It’s become quite a symbol of what the blog stands for. Every now and then a fun post goes up titled “Liz called me an SOB,” those are my favorite.
Consider the post title a hat tip, Liz. I couldn't pass up the complimentary acronyms. Thanks for the nod, and keep up the good work.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Reclaiming "Joy"

At Successful Blog, Liz has a convincingly-illustrated post up about nothing other than vocabulary reclamation (more or less).

Joy might be the word I miss the most. At one time joy filled a heart. I think about joy. I wish for joy, and I wish joy for my friends, and yet when I write the word, it seems shallow, not conveying how deeply I wish for them. Joy is exponentially greater than the happiness we all seek, but the word has been made flat like old soda. Now it calls up thoughts of Seasons Greetings and green box bottoms with clear covers in drug stores every November. It’s laced with cranky people standing in lines at cash registers. How can I wish true joy when it conjures up images of chaos and too much to do?

Well worth a read.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Vocabula Review

As a Joseph Epstein fan, I lifted this short piece instantly when I found it on Between Two Worlds. What a great name for a journal! (Thanks, Justin Taylor, for the intro.)


Joseph Epstein writes about The Vocabula Review , an online monthly journal by Robert Hartwell Fiske, whose purpose is to battle "nonstandard, careless English" and to embrace "clear, expressive English."

The Vocabula Review, in fact, has two mottoes: "A society is generally as lax as its language" and "Well spoken is half sung." Mr. Fiske believes that honest language is elegant language. His online magazine is neither a forum for prescriptivism nor for his prejudices, but deals extensively with the endless oddities and richness of language.

Mr. Fiske's own characteristic tone is perhaps best caught in his Dimwit's Dictionary. In that 400-page work a vast body of words and phrases are shown up for the linguistic ciphers they are. He has established a number of categories for "Expressions That Dull Our Reason and Dim Our Insight." These included grammatical gimmicks, which are expressions (such as "whatever," "you had to be there") that are used by people who have lost their powers of description; ineffectual phrases ("the fact remains," "the thing about it is," "it is important to realize") used by people to delay coming to the point or for simple bewilderment; infantile phrases ("humongous," "gazillions," "everything's relative"), which show evidence of unformed reasoning; moribund metaphors ("window of opportunity") and insipid similes ("cool as a cucumber"); suspect superlatives ("an amazing person," "the best and the brightest"), which are just what the category suggests; torpid terms ("prioritize," "proactive," "significant other"), which are vapid and dreary; not to mention plebeian sentiments, overworked words, popular prescriptions, quack equations, and wretched redundancies.

Read the whole thing