Monday, June 23, 2014

Words (4)

Creative writing's equivalent of Shakespeare's pound of flesh is having to slash some of your favorite words for the good of the rest of your work.

I set out to write my first novel believing that I had escaped journalism's oppressive dictum of "Never use a word a sixth-grader wouldn't understand." I had to battle the inclination to do just that throughout a career that spanned four decades and took me and my family from coast to coast and from the Northern Tier to Arizona. My own tastes in literature run heavily in favor of authors who challenge me by using words with which I'm unfamiliar. Time-consuming though it may be to look them up, I always feel rewarded when I do. Most of the time I realize that that particular word works better in the sentence where I found it than any other word could have worked. Apparently I've been seduced by polysyllabic profundity.

Which makes me sort of a lone wolf. No sooner had I turned out my first version of "The Leather Man" and begun soliciting comments from friends than I was up to my elbows in complaints about "big words." Sometimes the words weren't that big; they were just too arcane, specialized or little-used, consigned to wherever words go when they live beyond the lifetimes of those who enjoy using them. "Surd" is a good example, and it's one of the words readers of "The Leather Man" won't have to deal with. It means "deaf" and refers to an absence of sound, but a secondary meaning is "senseless." I used it in what is now Chapter 4, referring to the pace of a dream that was turning into a Vietnam flashback for a troubled veteran. Then I took it out during a rewrite, pretty sure that it wasn't going to resonate with anyone.

That was early in the novel, but other words went ahead of surd, especially in the Prologue, which discusses the unique abundance and quality of Idaho water. I edited more than four pages out of the introductory portion of the book, including every bit of Payette, Idaho, farmer Nephi Purcell's fascinating battle with a 1,500-pound white sturgeon in 1911. The feedback I got was that the abundance of detail slowed down the reader's immersion in the story of the novel itself, which is not about fishing. Removed as concomitant casualties in the Prologue were words like:
  • Oppilate, which to me is a great verb meaning to stop up, or impede. I used it originally in the belief that readers might find it a rather more elegant synonym for dam or impound.
  • Anadromous.
  • Riparian.
  • Taxonomy.
  • Detritus.
  • Cognoscenti.
  • Rhyolite.
  • Leviathanesque (my preferred word, not in any dictionary, but means the same as leviathanic).
That was before the counting of chapters began. Later on in the book, I found reasons to strike (mostly because of their lack of currency in our vocabulary-depleted culture) words like:
  • Suppurating.
  • Ineluctable.
  • Lacuna.
  • Ubiquitous.
  • Gymkhana.
  • Vulpine.
  • Corvine.
  • Orison.
  • Sacristan.
  • Coriaceous (too perfect for a book named "The Leather Man").
For those who feel cheated, however, there are a few words left in that might help build vocabularies. Here are the several you don't hear every day, with definitions:
  • Fuliginous, adj., like soot (used in conjunction with my description of lava rock as soot-colored).
  • Sphygmodic, adj., pulsating.
  • Porcine, adj., characteristic of pigs, pig-like.
  • Anfractuous, adj., twisted, snake-like.
  • Anergic., adj., lacking energy.
  • Atrabilious, adj., melancholic; literally, of black bile.
  • Benthic, adj., relating to the ocean floor.
  • Boreal, adj., coming from the north.
  • Exanimate, adj., bereft or deprived of life.
  • Phalanx, noun, originally a massed infantry formation; closely packed group.
  • Janissary, noun, originally a Turkish soldier; now any elite, loyal fighter.
  • Crepuscular, adj., having to do with twilight.
  • Cyclopean, adj., of or pertaining to a Cyclops.
  • Chiaroscuro, noun, strong interplay of light and dark in an art composition.
  • Exophthalmic, adj., noticeable protrusion of the eyeballs.
  • Mastodonic, adj., of or pertaining to a mastodon.
  • Pullulate, verb, germinate quickly.
  • Prolix, adj., wordy.
  • Malevolent, adj., intending to harm or do evil to others.
  • Subclavian, adj., beneath the collarbone.
  • Susurrant, adj., murmuring.
  • Synecdoche, noun, letting a part of something stand for the whole of a group.
  • Gleek, verb, to drool or expectorate.
  • Verbigeration, noun, repetitive use of words or phrases.
  • Palindromic, adj., related to a sequence of symbols or elements that read the same forward or backward; used in the book to describe the regular, rolling appearance of the mountains east of the Lemhi River.

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