Big Words I Get Stuck On by Colin Cotterill

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“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

Now I don’t know about you but I imagine old Bill was trying to be insulting when he said that. But if I was old Ernie I’d have a bit of a chuckle over it. (Before I smacked old Bill one on the nose). Because there’s something really annoying in my book about authors showing off. I’m almost twenty seven and I figure if I don’t know it yet, it couldn’t have been much of a word in the first place. I don’t want to sit reading with a dictionary on my lap just in case I don’t know some vocabulary in my own language. I feel inadequate enough already without a novelist rubbing my nose in it. I was a PE teacher, for heaven’s sake. The only two words we needed with over two syllables were givusanotherone barkeeper.

The problem with writing a blob like this is that there’ll be people out there who know all the words in the English language and they’ll call over their wives and say, “Transmoria, darling. Come and look at this. That Cotterill chap doesn’t know the word, propitiate and he calls himself a writer.” Well, I tell you, if propitiate was such an all-fired special goddamned word, why don’t they put it on cereal packets?

‘Kellogs new zingy fruit loops will propitiate you out of your socks.’

I tell you why not. Because we already have the word tickle which is much easier to say and less likely to be confused with the word prophylactic, a finagling congeneracy that constantly trips up academics.

Sometimes I find myself stalled in the middle of a Kathy Reichs thinking, “I haven’t understood one word in the last six pages.” But I do make allowance for writers who just want to bamboozle me with technical vocab they know I won’t waste my life looking up. I think we all secretly want to believe that there’s an advanced technical world out there we’ll never be allowed into. No, it’s the authors who drop in words they find in crossword puzzles that get me. Most of these smartarse words are just stuck up, highfalutin versions of perfectly good words we all know and love. They’re shoved in there to keep us readers in our place.

I’ve just stopped reading a book by P.D. James. I confess I didn’t get very far. In the first chapter she’d already hit me with mullioned windows and palimpsest. She obviously didn’t want me to read any further. When I was growing up the only windows we had were cracked and stuck. Not once did I hear my dad say, ‘One more word out of you and I’ll kick you out that bleeding mullioned window, boy.’ It annoyed me that I had to look it up. Surely the lady could have merely disembroiled the discomfiture by saying, ‘Cecilia walked to the window which had a vertical member such as of stone or wood, dividing it.’ In such a way the noesis would have been autodidactic.

But palimpsest was just plain orotundity.

“Oh, my word, Transmoria. Now the fool’s going to say he doesn’t know what palimpsest is. What is the world coming to?”

Not only did I not know what it meant. I also refused to look it up. So you’ll have to. It’s an extremely silly sounding word which I’m sure has a perfectly haymish synecdoche. Now, something in me wants to forgive P.D. James because according to Wickedpedia she’s 160 years old and a lot of these words were probably arpifuse when she was a girl. But I have toz warn you there are a lot of carpacuous writers out there who vorantly look up words in the dictionary just to show how sepential they are. And I for one am not going to gyre their slithy toves.

“No, Transmoria. I can’t find it either. It can’t be a real word.”


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