Episode 346: December 6, 2012
by Constance Hale
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Lexicographers don’t agree on how many words there are in the English language, but just pick up an unabridged dictionary and you’ll appreciate how weighty our language is—and how many choices it gives us. But a rich vocabulary can be a double-edged sword (or should I say a seax—the ferocious fighting implement favored by the Saxons?)
English is a makeshift, cobbled-together thing. Celts, Scots, Picts, Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans all invaded the British Isles at various times in the last 1500 years, leaving linguistic traces. Then British colonists ventured to distant realms and adopted words from the Americas, the Orient, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa (giving us, oh, moccasin, yen, bungalow, and Timbuktu).
All this battling and bending, pushing out and pulling in, gave us not just numerous synonyms, but a nimble language. We love new words, often inventing them with abandon: Shakespeare coined bet, drug, and dwindle; more recently minted verbs include de-bone and defriend. We have the flexibility of turning a noun into a verb, or vice versa: when the New Yorker’s Roger Angell needed to describe the motions a catcher makes to a pitcher during a baseball game, he called that “semaphoring a plan.”
The bright side of a rich vocabulary is variety. The dark side is redundancy.
Choose Your Words for Sound
Having so many choices means we can select words for music as well as meaning. We can listen for vowels and consonants that echo the sound of real things, whether the splash of water, the sniffle of a crybaby, or the snicker of the bully who makes fun of him. We can make words play with gravity (bump, dump, and thump) and levity (float, flit, and flutter). A verb like flutter can imply lightness, speed, motion, and emotion, and it can also cast a metaphorical net, catching images of things that flutter—butterflies, eyes—as well as traits like beauty, innocence, or delicacy.
Watch for Redundancy
But if the bright side of a rich vocabulary is variety, the dark side is redundancy. Of course, the habit of repetition is deeply encoded in language (remember the “and God said” of Genesis?), and it can make words magical (abracadabra). Reiteration can ensure that the words are understood in a noisy courtroom (null and void) and that ideas pop on a book spine (The Sound and the Fury, The Best and the Brightest, The Power and the Glory).
But, all too often, repetition is mindless—or, worse, clichéd. It is just run-of-the-mill redundancy, deflating rhetorical power and fuzzing up meaning.
Think of how many adverbs merely repeat what a verb expresses: circle around, expedite quickly, merge together, repeat again, return back, first conceive, plan ahead, completely destroy. Those two-word phrases could all convey the same idea with one word. Then there’s shuttle back and forth. C’mon: “back and forth” is part of the definition of shuttle, so to write shuttle back and forth only shuttles our readers within a sentence.
Often, we deploy verb pairs reflexively, not intentionally. Shelve one part of dig and delve. Think twice about think and reflect. When it comes to this habit, cease or desist—but, please, don’t cease and desist!
Certain redundancies are especially common business writing, like the nouns effectiveness and efficiency or the verbs engaged and excited. The following sentence appeared in the manuscript of a business book: “Consider how keeping a daily checklist might keep you engaged and excited about your job.” But when you are engaged, aren’t you usually excited?
One of the biggest downsides of a too-rich-vocabulary is words that are uncommon and unwieldy. The worst are also abstract and pompous. Some have been cobbled from Latin and Greek by writers who wanted to seem erudite. (A few centuries ago, these were dubbed “inkhorn terms,” in honor of the horn pot holding ink for quills used by pedantic writers too fond of the classics.)
Beware Tuxedo Verbs
I prefer to call them “tuxedo verbs.” Take perfectly good verbs like give, start, join, grill, and pay, dress them up in uncomfortable duds, and you get the synonyms bequeath, commence, conjoin, interrogate, and remunerate.
Other tuxedo verbs rely on the Greek suffix –ize. Some of these cropped up long ago— baptize, for example, was used as early as the 13th century. Modern science loves this suffix and sticks it on nouns to create verbs such as oxidize, polymerize, and galvanize.* When an -ize verb expresses something we have no better synonym for—capsize, Mirandize, recognize, sterilize—it’s fine to use it. But avoid such verbs when a more succinct synonym exists—finish is better than finalize, and moisten is better than moisturize, no matter what Oil of Olay promises.
Learn from Pompous Ass Words
At www.pompousasswords.com, Dan Fejes curates an entertaining list of such words. He and his readers cull tuxedo verbs (or, rather “pompous ass words”) from major media. One example comes from an interview in 2002 with Karl Auerbach, a board member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers who sued ICANN for not releasing certain records. The desire for transparency is a good thing, but check out this untransparent language:
“I essentially have to ask the approval of management to see certain documents. They go cogitate and then tell me whether I can see them.”
Maybe it’s not fair to pick on someone who’s speaking off the cuff, but we should cogitate on why we don’t just use think.
Pompous words are part of George F. Will’s literary brand, so it’s easy to pick on the political columnist. But it’s odd even for him to use the verb palter when writing about the down-to-earth subject of baseball and its former commissioner, Bart Giamatti:
“Giamatti knew exactly why “boys will be boys” is not a satisfactory response to paltering with the rules of the game.”
When you’re talking about “boys being boys,” doesn’t it make sense to talk like one of the guys? Mislead or, for that matter, quibble might have been better.
Strive for Grace
Are we quibbling too much over synonyms? No. Graceful style requires graceful words. And it cannot suffer redundancy. It’s great to have a rich language, but only when we pick our jewels carefully.
Constance Hale is the author, most recently, of Vex, Hex Smash, Smooch.
Her website (www.sinandsyntax.com) covers the gamut about grammar, writing, and the writing life.
* The original version of this article included the examples electrolyze and hydrolyze. These words have lysis as their root, and therefore are not good examples of using the -ize suffix to make nouns into verbs.