What sparked these conversations was a comment made on Twitter last month in which a Kiwi reader of the Paris Review objected to the use of the word “crepuscular” — a bookish adjective that derives from the Latin crepusculum, twilight — citing the word as evidence of the writer’s self-indulgence, and claiming that the creative essay in which the word appeared was an example of elitist writing.
A timely reposting of a piece by Eleanor Catton on elitism in literature from Metro magazine.
I’m in pretty full agreement with Catton’s thoughts here – and I’m reminded of something I read a while ago, but I can’t remember who wrote it. It might have been Stephen Fry?
Anyway, the crux of it was that reading stuff with long or unfamiliar words in is fantastic and encourages the reader to look up the meanings and learn to use those words in context if they like.
Calling it elitist to use words unfamiliar to the majority of readers really promotes the idea of simply drawing up a vocabulary of, say, 5,000 words, and sticking to them to describe everything. Heaven forbid you should ever use a word from outside that core of understood language in case a reader may take offence.
And at what point does that core of words become ‘enough’ to describe most things? Do we ensure that all pupils are familiar with each and every word by a certain age, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never come across another unfamiliar word in all their reading lives?
Part of what I love about reading and, fuck it, life, is that I will always – hopefully several times every day – stumble upon something that I don’t fully understand, or am unfamiliar with.
I want to discover those things, and then understand them in relation to things I am familiar with. The very idea that I would ever stop learning or discovering is horrible to me.
As Catton points out, it’s now easier than ever to look up unfamiliar words when you’re reading. You’re rarely far away from a dictionary or, more likely, a smartphone or other web-enabled device for a quick Google.
And if you do the majority of your reading on a Kindle, smartphone or tablet, you need simply to mash the frightening-looking word with your finger, wait half a second, and then add the meaning of that combination of letters to the mushy thing inside your skull.
And finally, just while I’m on the subject, one of the best things ever is xkcd’s description of the Apollo spacecraft, “explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often.”