Sunday, June 8, 2008

Everyday words aren't always the best

Familiar everyday words aren't always the best choice. In most cases they are, but sometimes an unfamiliar word is more precise or has more impact.

Precise unfamiliar words may be more concise'Albedo' is an unfamiliar word, but if you were writing about climate change or the landscape it could be a very useful term as it means the amount of sunlight reflected back by a portion of the earth.
Unfamiliar words may have more impact'Woolly' thinking is a more common phrase than 'flocculent' thinking yet Winston Churchill, who was a great fan of simple words, used the expression 'flocculent thinking'.

According to Sir Ernest Gowers, author of The Complete Plain Words, 'flocculent' conveys an extra ounce of contempt "perhaps because the combination of 'f' and 'l' so often expresses an invertebrate state, as in flop, flap, flaccid, flimsy, flabby and filleted".

New words creep into our language all the timeThe above examples both come from an interesting article by James Meek. But I started thinking about this topic when someone in a writing course suggested that we're dumbing down our language by using familiar words.

I'm not sure I agree as we're so inventive with our language. New words in the Macquarie Dictionary this year include: credit card tart, tanorexia, salad dodger, floordrobe, silent disco, Chindia and carbon footprint.

I bet you don't know them all!

Their meanings: credit card tart = someone who transfers a loan from one account to another; tanorexia = skin tan obsession; salad dodger = an obese person; floordrobe = my son's bedroom floor; silent disco = dancers wearing headphones to eliminate noise pollution; Chindia = India and China; carbon footprint = our carbon dioxide emission impact on the environment.

New phrases include 'the green shoe brigade' (groups who cash in on environmental concerns in a dubious way), 'arse antlers' (tattoo just above the bum) and 'man flu' (man with a minor cold who exaggerates the symptoms).

ReferencesJames Meek, 'From albedo to zugunruhe', Guardian newspaper, Dec 07, Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, Stephens, 'Linguists put the shine on Strine', SMH,

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