On language and writing30 Sep 2023
When I was younger, I once told my dad I was using word to discover all the synonyms to try to write more interestingly.
Many of those words have stayed with me over the decades, such as epitaph, serendipitous, agglomeration, languidly, tartar, preamble, estrafalario (another word for bizarre, in Spanish), among many others.
He replied that it is better to use easier-to-grasp words when possible, most readers wouldn’t fully grasp the context when presented with words they didn’t understand.
The way I took it was: Why use more complicated words to explain something that can be done with simple ones.
I’ve found this same sentence in different forms over the years, in videos about public speaking, writing, making presentations, writing technical documentation, etc.
When I read books that use complex sentence structures, obscure grammar and words, on one hand I feel like the author is being somewhat pompous, showing off their aptitude for words, yet on the other I also feel sometimes when you manage to stumble through a complicated paragraph, over time you learn to see past the air of superiority, and you glean a bit more understanding from the words you aren’t familiar with.
Words that once you might have associated with right-clicking in Word and selecting “Find Synonyms” now have a slightly different meaning, a synonym might convey different intent, it suddenly becomes available to you, to use in contexts where that word might be the exact one that conveys your thoughts at that moment.
You might be aware of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which states that once you learn something you start seeing it everywhere.
I believe a balance can be achieved, where you push the boundaries a tad without sounding pompous, just to inject a bit more colour & texture into one’s language.
The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is littered with exquisite phrases and rare words. The first few chapters also deal with a similar topic, but from the perspective of knowledge, intellectualism, the study of the classics, letting thoughts go wild without restraint, how far can we push it?
I couldn’t help but see the similarities between the theme of the book (so far) and my thoughts about language.
Are you moved by classical music? Does the ending of Spring 1 from Max Richter’s “Reimagining Vivaldi” bring shivers to your spine? I wonder if this highbrow elitism translates equally to music: There are those who see classical music as somewhat pompous; is it possible to enjoy underground rap, hip-hop, hardcore punk, thrash, fusion jazz, and classical music simultaneously? What is the difference between someone who casually enjoys music and one who feels/understands it?
I love most music genres, even those I hated as a kid, such as cumbias. That said, my slight disdain for reggaeton remains strong. I wonder if the same that happens with languages translates to music. Does one who is not well-versed in the intricacies of classical music, the history, the movements, the cadenza, the preludes, the fugues, the counterpoint, the themes, the musical idioms and expressions, would they appreciate music on the same level as someone who’s been classically trained?
Sometimes music touches you beyond the explainable, for example, a complex spicy chord might evoke a certain sensation, such as those during the solo by Cory Henry on the live recording of Lingus by Snarky Puppy. Sometimes when I hear something that evokes such sensations I look around me, unsure if the people I’m with are feeling that same thing, or if they are just passively enjoying it. Is it perceived the same way? Or do we feel music in different ways? Will training lead to allowing that feeling to erupt upon listening to that chord due to our newly found understanding of the underlying play between the notes? The deeper composition? I wonder.
And yet, if you continue down this line of thought… what about people who know so much more… will they think the same? If you could paint in a million tones and textures would you limit yourself to only a few, to make your work more digestible, more humane, more understood? Probably a bad example, but I guess what I’m getting at is:
Would you sabbotage the endless pallette of words at your disposable to conform to a lower-denomination in an effort to be more widely-understood?