Speaking of Strange Vocabulary

One thing I find interesting is reading authors from, say, late Victorian to about the 1950s. Their vernacular is spectacular.

For instance, I can read Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, at least most of them, for free.  Edgar never messed around with using short words when he could use big ones. I tried reading one of those books to my 7 year old, and found myself doing a lot of substitution or “do you know what that word means?” Obviously, the sophistication level of ERB is higher than a 2nd grader, but there were words in there that are $20 words where a .25 cent word would have done fine.

Were authors showing off? Was having a large vocabulary of singular purpose words, like defenestration, useful when writing? Did people at the turn of the century or in the roaring 20s appreciate or desire complex words over simpler ones?

Zane Grey, that prolific western writer, like to use the term ejaculated, and no, not like what you’re thinking. It meant, “say something quickly and suddenly.” So you’d come upon gems like,

“Har har har, Sheriff!” Black Bart ejaculated, expectorating a large glob of chew into the dirt and on the sheriff’s boots.

That’s not ZG, that’s my version of something he might write. You get the drift. Or take something written by Sir Walter Scott:

“We bestow no mean compliment upon the author of “Emma” when we say that keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners, and sentiments, greatly above our own.”

(From Jane Austen. (1775–1817).  Pride and Prejudice., The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917, Criticisms and Interpretations I. By Sir Walter Scott, retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/303/2/1001.html March 19, 2017.)

That’s really wordy. I know a couple of editors who’d tell SWS to tone it down, and not be so high falootin in his language.

Which raises the question, if Leo Tolstoy were writing Anna Karenina today, would the editors have been writing in big red letters on his draft, “What the hell is this? Unnecessary chapter. Cut it out.”  and “Why did you kill the title character half way through this book?” OTOH, at 364,000 words, the editor charging .014 per word would make $5,096.  That’d be in rubles, of course. And all those big words… let’s dumb it down a little, Leo, the people simply don’t have the vocabulary of 100 years ago.

Cultural trends point toward the continual dumbing down of our language. Most people do not understand the simple apostrophe, and while they may have composed 80000 word novels, those novels were in vapid text messages to their friends. “Wht R U doing?”

Based on this cultural change, do writers reflect that in their writing? Where it was okay for Josef Conrad to slowly bring you into the Heart of Darkness, would that sort of writing be considered overly pretentious and wordy today?

In support of this, I submit the movie making of the 1960s vs. now.  First episode of Columbo, we get a 3 minute loving helicopter shot zooming in on a mansion.  Then we get several more long scenes showing the murderer in their home, doing this and that, and it’s quite slow and lazy.  Contrast that with today’s movie, where all that would be accomplished in several 4-5 second scenes, because you don’t have the luxury of mucking about on a long scene. That reflects the audience, not the movie maker.  The audience is so ADD, we’re bored to death if you don’t do a cut every 4-10 seconds. Action, reaction, action, reaction, wide shot, action, reaction, etc.

If I see terms that are archaic in modern writing, I think either the writer is out of touch or they’re trying to show off. “Look, I’m smarter than you because I own a thesaurus and it has these obscure terms that no one knows. Even your Kindle dictionary won’t know ’em. I’m awesome.”  Thanks, but no. That’s not communication, that’s prattle.

That does not mean you’re allowed to spell minuscule with an “i” instead.


2 thoughts on “Speaking of Strange Vocabulary

  1. A reading audience used to be made up of people of a privileged class who didn’t have to work 8-5. So, there that. Or rather, people who worked read mysteries and the others read literary fiction.

    I don’t have the patience for Heart of Darkness, but I wish I did. Writing like that in ‘Queen Margot’ borders on poetry and is beautiful, even if it’s tedious.

    I have noticed my own shrinking attention span when reading, and it makes me worried. Sometimes I wish I could read faster, but I miss the hours I used to spend savoring a book.


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