Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Words, words, words...

‘The hallmark of every truly educated person is a wide and flexible vocabulary’

The above is a quotation from Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, a book I loved as a child. Our orphaned eleven-year-old hero goes to live with his aunt, and she gets him to follow her about with notepad and pencil to improve his vocabulary.

Auntie Mame: Well, now, read me all the words you don't understand.

Patrick: Libido, inferiority complex, stinko, blotto, free love, bathtub gin, monkey glands, Karl Marx... is he one of the Marx Brothers? Neurotic, heterosexual...

Auntie Mame: Oh, my my my my, what an eager little mind. [takes the list] You won't need some of these words for months and months.

Mame was right about her nephew's vocabulary. I've been thinking about this, partly because of FreeRice, but also because of one or two comments on Youwriteon and elsewhere suggesting that a writer should limit the words he uses in case his readers are unfamiliar with them. One of Rising Fire's reviewers doubted teenagers would know 'monastic', 'elaborately coiled', 'dragon lore', or 'inscrutable'.

Can this be true? If teenagers really cannot cope with these words, then the sooner they learn to the better. Without going all Lord Reith over this, I write to entertain, but have no objection to doing a bit of informing at the same time.

There is no point at which anyone, of whatever age, has learned all the words he needs. Get out your notepads!


  1. When Mary and I read our friend Alethea Eason's manuscript that became Hungry, we circled the word "diaphanous." Since Hungry is for ages 9-13 we questioned if it might be too much for the age. Alethea is a "Reading specialist by day. Writer by night." She knows about how kids learn words. "Diaphanous" stayed.

    Keep the words.

    Karl is known as the fifth Marx brother.

    Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others. - Julius (Groucho) Marx

  2. Yes, a friend told me when Minty was born not to talk down to her by using easy words.

    I took his advice. He was right.

  3. Nope, Karl is the sixth Marx brother. After Gummo and Zeppo.

  4. Hey, what about Newbie Marx?

    (Feeble joke, but topical).

  5. I never could tell Gummo or Zeppo apart. I thought they were the same brother with just different stage names.

  6. Zeppo was in at least one or two of the movies. I think, I say I think that Gummo had dropped out of performing before the boys hit the big screen, having worn out hisself on the vaudeville circuit.

    I'll have to Wikipedia that to see if I'm anywhere right.

  7. Alan,
    You caught me. I had my tongue firmly in cheek. I'm sure you're correct. Catching me was "Duck Soup" on your part.

  8. I think the important thing is to use the right word. Sometimes that means using one which is simple other times it might mean using something long or unknown to the reader. As long as it's the right one and isn't being used to show off the author's vocab (which would mean the reader's thinking about the writer and not the story)then it's fine.

    And learning new words is good fun!

    That's what I think.


  9. Nik, thank you so much for a comment which does not mention the Marx Brothers.

    I must say I was getting rather sick of all five (or six) of them.

    Ye, Norm and Alan, I AM looking at you.

  10. Ah, but in Groucho's old TV show, "You Bet Your Life", if the contestant said the right word, the cigar smoking duck descended on a string and there was money won. A hundred dollars I do believe.

    So a discussion of the right word at the right time fits perfectly with the Marx Bros.

    I think you need to find a place for "rannygazoo" in "Trav". It is a good word and deserves wider circulation.

    And it has nothing to do with the Marx Brothers. Which is a shame.

  11. Lexi,
    You've been on YWO how long and you're letting a couple of dumb comments rile you?
    Look, some of the writers on there are complete morons.
    You know that for a fact.
    Many of the writers there are serious about their craft.
    I got my fair share (frankly more than my fair share) of dumb comments.
    My favorite continues to be the writer on the site who chided me for using Hell's Kitchen in my NYC based story and saying - what is that? A restaurant? A building?
    ARRGGH...and of course your buddy Alan here was not exactly kind either, but I've forgiven him (wink).
    Focus less on the stupids and more on finding a niche for your babies.
    My parents encouraged me to read with a dictionary handy. I would say the same thing applies today.
    If you are not learning something new, read something else!

  12. Riled? Moi? No, no.

    Fiona, I've been on Youwriteon for a year and a day, and I know that the stupid reviews are the tax you pay on the good ones.

    Inevitable on a site that welcomes all comers.

    And you are not to say anything critical about Alan, a reviewer sans peur et sans reproche.

    (Dunno why I've gone a bit French in this comment).

    I'm with your parents on the dictionary advice.