Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ay' get me me other crutch will ye, I need to get me dictionary out of stowage!

When did it become poor form for an author to send his readers to a dictionary?

I don't know how many times now that I've perused a review blog or lurked through a writers forum and found so much negative response to the use of large words or words whose meaning has changed enough over the years that someone would suggest that using it for what it was intended was a grand sin.

I have heard every argument from it being purple prose to perhaps trying to talk over the reader's head. But, the truth seems to lie in that no one wants to pick up a dictionary anymore. And in this age when the dictionary is a few clicks away on a keyboard that seems even more phenomenally idiosyncratic at the very least.

I recall when I was young, yes I really do, and maybe I don't remember it all exactly the way it was, but I think that I've got this one correct. I was assigned reading, which required the use of a dictionary. I was encouraged to read those novels that would introduce me to new words and I was, eventually, never in fear of entering a library where my mind would be devoured by the vagaries of an author who was too high handed with his vocabulary.

Perhaps it was just me, I remember even times when first delving into Mark Twain's universe that I had to find the meaning to a word. Oh, but, then, I didn't always try to rely on just the context to tell me the meaning. And I knew well the pitfall of trying to use context because there were words used in his time that meant something different today. No context does not define the word it helps determine which definition the writer is using. The dictionary still defines the word.

In recent years I've actually found small innocent words that have been sorely abused. Oh, sure by context you can figure out what the writer wanted to say. They merely slipped up and used the wrong word without looking up the meaning. It's only four letters so why would anyone look it up? Now there is the root of this whole problem. Some people simply do not want to use a dictionary for anything.

The question is: how did we reach a point where the so called professionals of reading and the help desk for writers have been allowed to lay claim to knowledge that readers don't like using the dictionary and that they have to be coddled into the understanding of the meaning of every word by its context and that no single word should actually encompass that context unless its such a simple small word that the simplest of readers might glean the meaning and the context without all the fuss of verification.

Yet to hear that someone would put a book down rather than constantly run to the dictionary makes me cringe. How many times have Poe, Dickens, Melville, Conrad, and Doyle, been cast aside for this very reason today? I still have my dictionary at hand whenever I read Charles Dickens. Might as well just burn Dumas and Cervantes.

The worst argument I have heard yet is that, for a new author, it is forbidden. If they want to become a well read author they must use simple words that everyone understands. Since they are not established as the authors mentioned above, they have no right to use outdated and long words that are mostly an obvious show of purple prose attempts to create great flourishing phrases that will stand out.

And, there might be some truth to that.

But, these same people who spout these truisms have time and again shown an unswerving inability to gain context of the material to even begin to determine what is and is not purple prose. Their method is: if it looks, smells, tastes, and sounds like purple prose then it must be. The ability to determine context seems to blow completely from their head.

Even the famous phrase such as "It was a dark and stormy night..." can have relevance. Of course it's often what follows that is determined to be Purplish. Sure they all recognize that one as purple prose. But, if something happened on that dark and stormy night that could never happen on any other sort of night, then what do you do?

The sky was devoid of light and there was a dearth of open space between the angry clouds. Even the few voids in the cloud mass seem belligerent with the occasional flashes and their cacophony of sounds like drum rolls. Behind that blackness was even greater darkness as the elements shed their frustration over the earth below. Coming ever closer ever faster towards revealing the many flaws in the very structure of the great Manor House.

I use a dictionary when I write. Often to check spelling sometimes to make sure of my definitions. If I have to look it up that could bode ill towards my reader. Should it stay or should it go. That depends on the context and how well it fits the structure of the writing. It should never be determined by how often I might send a reader on some mad dash to get that dictionary from under their bed or from off the pressed leaf collection.

It should never be decided by a quorum of "writers" who have determined that the readers are not smart enough or will be distracted if they have to look up a single word.

On the other hand the reader still may just toss the book aside because they really are lazy and indigent. That's just a risk you take- and obviously with all the unsolicited help out there one that need not be taken at all if you want to play it safe.

Copyright J.L. Dobias

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