Russell Kirkpatrick had an interesting post over on his blog last week, about a list of words he obtained from a book he was reading, a list that a reader of that book had trouble understanding. Russell asked how many of these words we knew without having to look them up. Read his blog here to find out how he came by the list.
I particularly liked his remark in the comments section too: "I guess authors have be careful at what level they pitch their vocabulary. A reader doesn't want to be constantly looking up words in the dictionary. But if we all write for the lowest common denominator, some lovely and powerful words will be lost forever."
Here's the list:
haled (as in 'haled him home')
lard (as in 'with a needle lard each tenderloin')
omelette aux champignons
succes de scandale
The ones in the red are the ones I did not know. The blue ones are either the ones I sort of knew but didn't quite get right, or ones I guessed wildly at, and got accidently right.
I note that one commentator on Russell's blog said she got them all right - which was pretty impressive.
Anyway, it highlights a problem that we writers have - do we make concessions to our readers with the choice of our vocabulary? Use long and difficult words when short simple ones will do and we are accused, quite rightly, of being pretentious. However, there are times when a more difficult word is exactly right in that context. And so I use it, knowing that many of my readers will not understand it.
I look at it this way: most of us have learned the more unusual words in our vocabulary by reading them. Reading, not listening, is in fact the reason I have an extensive vocabulary. [Maybe that is not so true now with the present generation who get to listen to TV a lot more than my generation listened to the radio. I wonder, though, if TV extends vocabulary the way reading does...other than it puts the watcher in touch with recent trends in catchwords, technology and slang.]
And so my hope is that if a reader does not know a word when they read it, they will either guess its meaning from the context, or they will look it up, and either way they gain a new word.
Of course, sometimes a disparity in the writer's vocab and the reader's recognition leads to confusion. As I think I have mentioned elsewhere, my copy editor read the sentence "She feathered the oars" and asked me why the oars were covered in feathers? And a mention of someone being in the van of the army led to the query: How come the army had vans? What sort of vans did they have in those days?