Brevity is the soul of wit.
…Said the author who wrote with lots of words, many of them long and obscure. Nowadays, it’s fashionable to consider that concision is the hallmark of a well-organized thought process, and we laugh at the Victorian authors who spun ideas into whole paragraphs and wrote epigrams that filled a page (let us recall that they were usually paid by the word). All the same, I think it’s valuable to revive and make use of the longer and seldom-used words, just to keep them dusted off and preserved for posterity.
The younger me, much like one of her favorite heroines, Anne Shirley, was prodigiously fond of long words, partly because they were uncommon and therefore seemed adventurous, partly because they were complicated and represented a challenge, and partly because of a lifelong fascination with words and language. (I do remember a phase when I would thumb through the dictionary at random, reading a page here and there and curating such dusty antiques as perambulate, peroration, and persiflage. Who knew that peruse means to read carefully and thoroughly, not scan quickly, as it is commonly used? Apparently, the dictionary knows this.)
Then in my teens I suffered a bit of a backlash, taking to heart my English professors’ advice: “Never use a word of three syllables when a shorter one will do.” Confronted with word counts in practical matters such as letters to the editor and college assignments, where being taken seriously was a greater concern than showcasing one’s enormous vocabulary, it was natural as well as politic to trim down the excessive and the melodramatic.
Nowadays, however, I’ve found a good equilibrium. I don’t study too hard for words of four syllables, but pretty much fall back on whatever comes to mind. If it just so happens that my mind is populated with lots of words, so be it. I’m always learning new words, I enjoy discovering new words, and I tend to assume that everyone else should like it too.
Such is not the case, as demonstrated by the proliferation of Cliff Notes, condensed books, and abridgements. Which, in my opinion, are bad enough, but at least adults can make an informed decision to choose the shorter version and be lazy efficient with their reading. It’s quite another matter when mediocre knock-offs are peddled to gullible children as the real thing and serve to inform their budding tastes.
The reason this idea is so fresh (and emphatic) in my mind is that we were recently given a book that turned out to be abridged. That was bad enough, but it had, in fact, been adapted. I read in horror the first sentence, altered from the original to be easy for young minds to understand:
“Mrs. Rachel Lynde was a nosy neighbor.”
In those few words this adaptation proposed to sum up a good paragraph or two from the original, which jocularly described Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s capable character and employing such words as “dint,” “wont,” and “gauntlet.”
There is a school of thought, I suppose, that holds that children must be enticed into enjoying reading by making them comfortable with familiar words and concepts; and then, once their minds mature, they can grapple with longer words and complex ideas. But how do they get to that point of maturity? How will they learn, if not by exposure to words and concepts that stretch their minds? (Rhetorical questions, obviously.)
I grew up reading voraciously, perusing many books that might have been considered beyond my age range. When I came across a word I didn’t recognize, I learned what it meant by employing a few tricks:
- Figuring it out by context (although sometimes this served me poorly)
- Looking it up in the dictionary
- Asking my parents, who would tell me, “Look it up”
- Asking another adult, who might just tell me straight out
Alas, we don’t actually have a physical dictionary handy in our house, which lack I mean to rectify. Usually when my kids (typically my independent readers, the two eldest) ask me what a word means, I verify their pronunciation by having them spell it out to me, asking them what they think it means based on the context, and then giving them the definition. Naturally we work in word origin, various other forms of the word, and synonyms, too. Maybe even a dissertation on rhymes (or, if applicable, lack of—what, for instance, do month, oblige, and orange have in common?) After all, you can never have too many words in mind.
Photo Credit: Second and third images by Rose Focht.