Big Words Knock Me Out!
Author's note: This diatribe appeared in 1984, before the Internet and online dictionaries.
I have always wanted to be a famous esoteric writer. Outside of being lazy, there is only one thing that has held me back: I do not know enough abstruse words. But I have been working on it, as the previous sentence intimates.
Real writers are always using words like ''abstruse'' and ''intimate.'' For their own protection, however, they refrain from using them around the house, on the subway, or at the ballpark. ''My, what an abstruse pitching change'' is not the kind of language baseball fans in the upper deck appreciate. Those who blithely ''intimate'' this or that in such lofty circles are advised to bring a parachute to the game.
Wisely, literati save their best bon mots for novels, plays, short stories and related chef d'oeuvres. There, these arcane words stop the unsuspecting reader cold—in the same way a sledgehammer at an old school slaughterhouse gains the attention of a cow: ''Arcane'': whack. ''Claustral'': kah- bong. ''Fusty'': thunk.
As long as such powerful nouns, adjectives and adverbs are scattered widely throughout an opus, the concussion is generally a mild one. But when 100-megaton modifiers are packed together densely, page after page, like missiles in Montana, the shock can be devastating, indeed.
I started reading a book laced with toxic adjectives early last week and have just now returned to my senses. It was a bestseller by an established writer. The notes on the inside flap intimated, nay, insisted, that I would heartily enjoy the novel. I opened it in great anticipation of taking another step along the never-ending journey toward that receding citadel called Widely Read.
And I might have accomplished it, too, had I not been assaulted, waylaid and bushwhacked by three of the most ferocious words in the arsenal of modern English prose. While I lay unconscious on the divan, the dastardly trio snatched my will to read, temporarily at least. The three perpetrators appeared in the first half-page of text, a cruel trick even for an acclaimed author.
In the very first sentence, ''escutcheon'' staggered me. Next, ''bas- relief'' knocked me to my knees. Before I could recover, ''onyx'' turned out the lights.
Now, these are not the sort of words you will find in your pocket-sized, abridged, ''handy'' drugstore dictionary. The 50-pound deluxe model up in the attic will not help, either. A friend of mine happens to own a sufficiently esoteric dictionary and, during my convalescence, I borrowed it.
After renting a pickup truck and with the aid of a block and tackle, the gigantic lexicon was transferred to my study. The shortest word, onyx, seemed like a good choice to decode first. Sadly, I assumed there would be one meaning; there are six. The first goes like this: ''A variety of chalcedony having straight parallel bands of alternating color.'' Chalcedony? I wrenched my back attempting to throw the dictionary down the well.
I realize that a better person might possibly have guessed the meaning of one of the dread triumvirate. A Rhodes scholar would probably comprehend two and could make a wild stab at the third. But I will wager that the only human being alive who is acquainted with all three potent words is the one who wrote them.
To my knowledge, I have never done this particular writer or any professional author any harm. Why literary types deliberately stretch out reams of indecipherable words for myself and the rest of mankind to trip over, or worse, I can only guess. Perhaps such terminally serious semantic units are intended to intimate that the reader is holding a serious work. Another possibility is that the novelist owns stock in the company that publishes those humongous dictionaries.
Whatever the reason, writers who trot out obscure or multisyllabic words when short, simple ones will do are inflicting the greatest damage on themselves and their profession. After my bout with contemporary literature, my librarian prescribed a strong dose of Mark Twain. I am into my second volume now and have yet to call on Mr. Webster for assistance.
The absence of undecipherable words or adjectives the size of paragraphs does not seem to hurt Mr. Twain's efforts one whit. So far, he has succinctly described a good percentage of the human race, their odd customs and colorful beliefs in straightforward, plebeian prose. ''Onyx'' does appear in one chapter, but there is every indication that it is a typographical error. The sentence begins: ''Onyx upon a time…”