This is not a book review, but I recently read (yet another) “How To Write Real Good” book by Arthur Plotnik. This one is called Spunk & Bite, a play on the title of another How To book called Elements of Style by Strunk and White, published in 1918’s, which makes it, well, to be kind, geriatric.
Elements of Style was a rather rigid set of rules about what not to do. Do not affect a breezy manner. Do not inject opinion. Do not use foreign phrases. Do not prefer the offbeat rather than the standard. Do not, do not, do not.
One Do Not is to use words which will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of readers, those “big words” with more than two or three syllables and with which we may not have knowledge of their meanings. There is a lot of truth in this, that an author might not want to offput his audience by using a lot of verbiage which only demonstrates how well that author has mastered the English language. In other words, he’s a show off.
Jonathan Franzen contends that counter to the idea that “difficulty tends to signal excellence”, the writer must connect with readers in exchange for their commitment of time and attention to his work.
Yet Franzen himself does this very thing. Take his novel The Corrections, which I just finished reading for the second time. I found these examples (and more) of words that I either was not sure of or had no idea as to their meaning. (Italics indicates examples in The Corrections.)
Noblesse oblige – as if noblesse oblige. (I had a vague idea of what this meant, but wanted to bolster my confidence a little in order to use it without incurring smirks of condescension from others.)
A French phrase meaning “nobility obliges”. To imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibility. Sometimes used derisively, in condescension or hypocritical social responsibility. The term is sometimes applied, in American English especially, to suggest an obligation for the more fortunate to help the less fortunate.
“Certain persons in politics need not fear being cast into a perception of noblesse oblige.”
Misanthropy – misanthropy and sourness. (I am a little reluctant to admit I had to look up the work “misanthropy” which I felt I should already know, but wanted a better explanation.)
A hatred, dislike or distrust of humankind.
“Dude, whenever I go to a Wal-mart, I get this totally weird feeling of, like, misanthropy.”
Intransigently – folded her arms intransigently.
In a manner that is stern and indicates refusal to agree or compromise, inflexible.
“Certain members of the House of Representatives are motivated to behave intransigently.”
Invidious – he could already hear her invidious descants on the topic of…
Intension to create ill will or give offense; hateful. Offensively or unfairly discriminating or injurious. Tending to cause animosity, resentment or envy.
“Chill, woman. Everyone has to go through the body scan so no need to be overly invidious here.”
Pullulating – he considered waiting for a less populated [elevator] car, a ride less pullulating with mediocrity and body smells.
To breed, produce, increase rapidly, swarm or teem.
“Facebook is no longer a social network considered desirable by the Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers since it is pullulating with old people.”
Reverb – absolutely no reverb on a full elevator.
Rebound. If there is no reverb, there is nowhere to go, no escape, trapped, doomed, claustrophobized.
“Wow, I thought I was toast. Came down with a really bad case of The Plague, but I did a complete reverb.”
Riparian – with their damp hair they looked riparian.
Situated or dwelling on the bank of a river or other body of water.
“That shit we used to put on our hair in the sixties? That looked riparian and now they’re doing it again.”
Deliquescence – slushy ferric salts succumbing to their own deliquescence. (This refers to a man’s hobby, an ill-maintained basement laboratory.)
To become liquid by absorbing moisture from the air, to melt away.
I tried but I cannot think of a sentence which takes advantage of this word.
Diurnality – diurnality yielded to a raw continuum of hours.
Behavior, plant or animal, characterized by activity during the day and sleeping at night.
“Man, my diurnality is seriously messed up since I’ve become a narcoleptic.”
Hectoring – her e-mails had been hectoring.
To act in a blustering, domineering or bullying manner.
“So, I’m like, whatever, and she sighs about a million times and I’m like, you are so totally hectoring me here!”
Plangent – her voice was plangent.
A loud, deep sound, resonant, mournful.
“Dude, what’s with the plangent tone? You sound like such a loser.”
Semaphoring – inmates semaphoring, waving their arms like traffic cops.
A system of signaling, usually with special flags held in each hand and various positions of the arms indicate specific letters or numbers.
“The Kardashian Mom is on Oprah and your semaphoring is blocking my view.”
I recommend Spunk & Bite. It is fun to read, the writing fresh and the ideas very usable. It is one of the best I’ve read. You can find it here.