In a discussion regarding vocabulary, the aspiring novelist with whom I spoke dismissed my assertion that a writer needs an extensive vocabulary, saying, “I’m going to write books for ordinary people.”
In addition to her statement assuming that “ordinary people” don’t have wide vocabularies, I found it depressing. A writer without an expansive vocabulary cannot command brevity in writing. That writer will default to using several words to explain what he or she means because he or she doesn’t know the one right word that means what he or she wants to say.
Take any adjective and check out a thesaurus for its synonyms. None of the synonyms means exactly the same thing as the word for which you’re trying to find a substitute. They certainly don’t have the same applications. Let’s use “smart.”
Smart often means intelligent, perceptive, perspicacious, clever, and even educated. Along that line, it may refer to someone who has no or little formal education, but is wise to the ways of the world: “street-smart.” It also means well-dressed or stylish. It may be used to describe something that stings or hurts. And, last but not least, it may refer to someone with a clever and disrepectful attitude or retort: a “smart mouth.” None of those other meanings applies to the other synonyms.
(I remember watching Carol Burnett demonstrate the difference between a yell and a bellow. It was hilarious. I wish I could find it.)
Granted, the age group for whom you write may determine the vocabulary you use. However, there’s nothing wrong with inserting words here and there that may be unfamiliar to the reader and understood through context. That’s one way how we build our vocabularies. The other major way occurs through academic rigor. Remember vocabulary tests?
Words may be used in similar or even identical ways, but they carry nuances—sometimes subtle—that add depth of meaning and influence context. Not knowing what the word you’re using means often leads unintended consequences, like laughter.
Sometimes the error results from homonym confusion. Other times the error results from over-reliance on editing software which cannot discern nuance and context. Case in point: I recently read a book—a romance—wherein the author confused “lave” with “lathe.”
Lave and lathe, despite the similar pronunciation, mean different things.
Lave appears often in sexually explicit scenes. Except for this book, lathe does not. Applying the word “lathe” to body parts elicits cringing and laughter. Ouch!
To quote Horton from “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Seuss, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” You should, too. Or hire a writer or an editor who understands the nuance of language.
You know where to find me.
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