About Me

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I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Say That Again...

Still struggling to find a catchy title to use for posts on quotes...perhaps that it?

In any event, today's quote has been rolling through my mind lately, though it's a recurring inner thought and has been for years:

The difference between the perfect word and the almost-perfect word is like the difference between fire and the firefly.
~Mark Twain

This quote speaks volumes to me; I try to pick my words carefully (though I fail a fair amount of the time), and I'm usually conscious about the nuances that words convey and the connotations that they carry. The result of trying to be careful about the words you choose, however, is that you may often come across to those who don't know you as pretentious and / or arrogant. And not for nothing, but you might come off just the same to folks who know you too!

I can't tell you how many times I've been reprimanded to 'speak English'. My usual retort: this *IS* English...you should learn it.

But really, words do have specific meanings and I feel that we should try to use the right one at the right time. It is enormously difficult to get a specific idea in my mind faithfully duplicated in someone else's mind; using the wrong words just won't do.

I've gotten flack for using the word 'aroma'...apparently the listener found it pretentious, and they suggested that I should just use the word 'smell'. No matter that the words are different, eh? 'Smell' can mean any number of things from a horrid stomach-lurching stink to a pleasant...well...aroma. 'Aroma' narrows the definition significantly and puts one in a pleasant state of mind. We don't typically talk about the aroma from the trash.

Were I to describe something as a smell, the listener would not necessarily know if I was trying to describe a pleasant smell or an unpleasant smell. The rebuttal came that I could use 'good smell', or note that 'it smelled nice'.

Because that's easier than using the word 'aroma'??? Why not just use the right word?

I recall talking to a fellow once who was saying that someone had described something to him as 'nebulous'. Not knowing that word, he asked what it meant, and the speaker, she told him that it was like 'mysterious'. SO, questions he, why not simply use the word 'mysterious'?

Fair question, the answer to which is that they are not synonymous. That speaker fell into a bit of a trap and disseminated a wee bit of ignorance. When asked for a definition, she went searching for a synonym, and landed on a word that is 'like' nebulous (or at least the sense that she had been using at that time), but it's not quite 'nebulous'. And he, my friend, walked away with the understanding that these two words are the same, and how pretentious it must be to use 'nebulous' instead of 'mysterious'.

Here's one of my favorite character descriptions:
At bottom M. Bonacieux's character was one of profound selfishness mixed with sordid avarice and seasoned with extreme cowardice.
~Alexandre Dumas

When I read this, I felt that I truly knew what Dumas was trying to convey to me across the one-hundred-sixty-some odd years since it was penned. I thought it was great. Others have told me that it's too wordy; why not simply call him a coward and be done with it?

Well, because it's not the same, by gum! If you simply call him a coward, what does that mean, exactly? Do you get his utter depravity? His complete lack of care of how others get along? No. You might get nothing more than a fellow who does not like to fight.

And I rather like the culinary allusions too, as I can readily appreciate the difference between something that's 'mixed' into a larger whole, and how a 'seasoning' has a different impact entirely. Dumas' description of Bonacieux made my lip curl in derision to that character, and implanted in me (in a very quick and efficient passage) a deep-seeded dislike for the fellow.

Were he to simply be called a 'coward', I would not have been so emotionally invested in how he played his part in the story.

And now, in an unprecedented move, a third quote that always comes to mind when I rant to myself on this topic:

Your writing should take full advantage of the language's manifold wealth, but, at the same time, avoid pretentious pedantry.
~Writers.com Newsletter Vol. 3, No.1 January 2000

A fine line to walk, that. But I take this to heart, especially when writing my own fiction. I use the word that I think conveys my meaning, and if the reader doesn't know that word, well, perhaps they'll look it up and learn a little bit more English (or American) :)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject; it is too often loud in my ears, and I often feel that I'm the only one who cares! Anyone else out there care?


  1. Yes, this sort of thing fries my arse, to borrow a phrase from our nothing-if-not eloquent father. Seems to me though, that at times it's just easier to speak in "layman's" terms. "I caught a whiff of that wonderful smell" can just be easier to go with, cause it avoids the back and forth of "Why not just say smell", etc.

    However, it does feel rather like dumbing something down. I think you're right, for those who love the language, certain words do provoke (invoke? evoke?) certain emotions or at least a sort of insight. I'd be more repelled by a stench rather than a bad smell.

    In fairness though, you did mention that "it IS English"... It's likely more accurately English than that which you'd refer to as "American" would be. Perhaps they're listening in American?

    1. The old man was a pragmatic soul. However, I've found too often that if I speak in "layman's terms", my meaning is going to be at least diminished, and very often outright mis-communicated. It just doesn't get where I want it to get, and what does get there isn't right.

      Communication is just *so* hard!

  2. I am a pedant. I try hard to get it right, while acknowledging how often I fall short of my ideal. But it does mean that I spend more time than I care to admit correcting the English used in advertisements and television programs.

    1. Poorly written advertisements drive me nuts. I'll allow an error now and then, but if you're an advertisement professional, you JOB is to communicate correctly and well...you have NO excuse to routinely get it wrong. You really need to know the rules of the language in which you are advertising.

      FEH! I'm with you.

  3. I've been told more often than enough to "speak english" and I've been made fun of for being the gal who uses those big words. I've learned when to "dumb it down" as you say.
    I like having to run for the dictionary to learn the meaning of a word.

    1. A girl after my own heart. One of the best gifts I ever received was a big, fat dictionary!

    2. Also, as for "big" words, I find that I get that criticism no matter the actual length of the word. Often, I get it when using words that are only two syllables long.

      They should look up the meaning of the word 'big', I think. :)

  4. Only the ignorant who sport a mask of false humility object to the use of a good vocabulary. Fie on them and up theirs, I say.

  5. I remember how captivated I was by my English grammar school teacher, who read with such passion and introduced us all to classical literature (this was news to me). And I always remember this rule-of-thumb she taught us: don't use a longer word if there is a shorter one available. (So... why use two words when you can use one highly descriptive word... like your "aroma"). You want the word you do use to be the most descriptive word possible -- I agree.

    I for one, love how you write, you old curmudgeon.

    Now I'm wondering what word(s) would be considered pompous, for real... and if what I just wrote made sense. ;)

    1. Thank you very kindly, Carrie. Flattery will certainly earn bonus points! :)

      I don't think that a word in and of itself is or is not pompous; I think that it's how the speaker or writer uses the words. If it's the right word, then use it (and the right word may be longer than the almost-right word). To me, folks come across as pompous when they too often try too hard to use the larger, or more obscure, words.

  6. With regard to the pomp circumstance... (heh)... His daughter could point out not only her head, shoulders, knees and toes, around the time she was learning to talk, but she also knew her umbilicus. (belly button).

    1. Hehe...I had forgotten that! I've had great fun teaching the kids weird words, and having a nurse for a wife helps too.

  7. It's refreshing to see that someone other than me still likes to expand his lexicon, and enjoys having fun with words. Sadly, this downward spiral into text message speak is only going to get worse as literacy dwindles...

  8. Ugh. Text message speak... I die a little every time someone whom I would otherwise consider respectable says "How r u?"

  9. Text speak has certainly got to go...but ultimately will only worsen, I fear (in agreement with you two gents).