Big Words

Peter Gabriel said it best in his ironic song “Big Time:”

I’ve been stretching my mouth
To let those big words come right out

I love word-craft and clever language, but sometimes that fascination can get the best of me. Those big words are my nemesis because they can spell death for any hope of creating good writing. A few of them recur in tarot conversations: “it resonates with me” is one overused example; another is the way we loosely throw around the term “transformation” when “change” (or even “ending”) is a more apt word for what we’re trying to say. Granted there are distinctions of scale involved,  but not every transition in life deserves four syllables. We prefer the word “opportunity” with its five syllables when we could just as easily say “chance” to the same effect.

My personal Waterloo is alliteration; you know, the “rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” sort of thing. Edgar Allan Poe was a master at this, as his poem The Bells clearly shows. In the face of such excellence, I can only grovel before the Gods of Onomatopoeia  (as Monty Python might have said, “It’s got some Poe in it”) and beg forgiveness. This form of extravagance is easier to avoid when reading the cards in person because a glazed expression on my sitter’s face is an immediate clue that I haven’t connected. With the written word we must police ourselves. I forget the exact ratio, but I recall reading once that the best writing is roughly 10% inspiration and 90% editing.

I spent much of my 31-year career writing technical and legal text, so I’m no stranger to jargon. I was primarily writing for my professional peers, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to niceties of vocabulary; the right word was the one that sounded best in context while getting the message across. When blogging in the public sphere, one can’t afford to be so cavalier about such things. If I say “cacophony” when all I meant was “noise,” I can fully expect to be pegged as a high-brow literary snob and shunned by the very readers I’m trying to attract. It has been said that the best writers write for themselves, not the public, but even I would sneer at myself if I couldn’t come up with a more economical turn of phrase than that. On the other hand, I’m a maniacally stingy Scrabble player: I make only extremely short words so my opponents can’t play off them effectively. It’s a blocking strategy, not a winning one. My wife won’t play with me any more. The last time, many years ago now, she overturned the game board and stalked out. Some people have no sense of humor.

George Carlin once said “There are no bad words.” Even though he was talking about vulgarities and not florid excesses of the kind I’m on about here, I beg to differ in the latter case. A word that overflows its context in the same way that one fails to stuff ten pounds of excrement (you didn’t really think I was going to say “shit,” did you?) into a five-pound sack is certainly bad for its intended purpose. In trying to eradicate (umm, I mean cut) inanities, superfluities and redundancies (whoa, three jawbreakers in one sentence!) from my own writing, I’ve been ruthless of late. Charles Dickens may have been paid by the word when writing for periodicals, but his legendary overwriting was most likely the result. I think his serialized novel Bleak House could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter.

2 thoughts on “Big Words

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