February 9, 2010

Fiddy Cent

I love many things in life: chocolate, tea, the smell of a library, new pens, shopping, backrubs…; but I would say one of the major love affairs I have ever entered into has been with the English language. Plainly spoken I love words. They have always understood me, I have always had a knack with them, and they never call at 3 AM the day before a big test and leave passive-aggressive “we need to talk” messages on my voicemail.

The use of so-called “fifty cent words” is something I highly endorse, both in writing and in speech. Vocabulary is meant to be expanded, and the richer one’s vocabulary the better one is able to express herself. There are few things more exciting than coming across a new word and integrating it into you speech. Seriously, try it out. In the next few days slip in a word like “effulgent”, “lurdan”, or “percolating”. And take a minute to check out this website, a new find of mine which frankly I could spend hours browsing.

However. There is a limit. There is a point when it gets to be too much. If I have to sit with a dictionary in my lap to get through the first two pages of your essay, we have a problem on our hands. I just finished reading the introduction to Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye (the invention of poetic subjectivity in the Sonnets) by Joel Fineman and my goodness, man, could you get more convoluted? Seriously, do any of you know what “epideictic” or “encomium” means off the top of your head? There were even a few words I had to turn to several dictionaries to find (“intromissive” and “extromissive”). The OED finally gave me the answer: “have the quality or effect of intromitting or letting in (e.g. rays of light); connected with intromission” though they broke the cardinal rule of definition (do not use the word to define itself), but that’s another rant.

Now granted, I understand that his argument is based in language and convoluted language at that. He is speaking on some of the most famous treasure-troves of the English language, and these poems are rather old to say the least. Of course his style should be heightened, if not it would do a disservice to the poetry he is so carefully analyzing. However the extensive use of such ridiculously complicated prose is a disservice to the reader. Yes, this is a niche book which will only be read by scholars, but that does not mean it should be dressed in language so convoluted that only someone with such a strong desire to read it as to look up every unavailable reference in an unconnected reference book should be able to take in its message.

I suppose the heart of my frustration with this is the quality of writing in academia. Language is important and should suit the purpose with which the author took up pen, but just because you’re writing a book on a highfalutin’ topic does not mean you should be incomprehensible. Eventually it all just turns into a conglomeration of syllables anyway, why not make it easy to digest? It clarifies meaning, it makes people more inclined to stick with your argument, and it makes you look like less of a self-important prig.

…apologies to the late Dr. Fineman, I do find his argument engaging and interesting, I just wish he had said it with more clarity and less ostentation. Peacocks don’t need to adorn their tails, all they have to do is strut.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Wow, you took the words out of my mouth. Actually, for me, I used to get intimidated by big words that I didn't understand. I thought it highlighted my ignorance, limitations and incompetency. Now, being older, wiser and weathered (or maybe seasoned is a better word) I realize that people sometimes hide behind words. They can be used as a defense. Like saying "don't mess with me, I'm smarter than you because I read the dictionary". So, I try to read between the words. I listen to the music behind the words.( The problem with the written word is that the music is what you project it to be...not necessarily the intent of the writer). I'm digressing. So, I simply want to thank you for this reminder.