1. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    Introducing Obscure Words

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by badgerjelly, Feb 21, 2017.

    Just chatting to friend and he said "no one will understand what you write", in reference to me telling him about a word I found. I do not plan to use that word, but it made me think about how to introduce obscure words to the reader.

    Recently I noticed a word I like used in a movie. "Crepuscular". So I am happy to use this without giving it too much thought.

    Words come into fashion and then die out. My question is if you wish to use a specific technical term that you know many will not understand how can you explain the meaning within the narrative other than simply having one character explain it to another? Or do we simply have to be creative with how a character is led into explaining the use of a certain term?

    I am not talkinh about doing this repeatedly in a novel. My first thought was the movie "Serendipity". A once relatively obscure word is now pretty common. The same goes for "malecifent" or "insiduous". These are explained through the medium of film though.
     
  2. Wolf Daemon

    Wolf Daemon Active Member

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    Don't explain it at all. Simply use the word. The whole point of books aside from being entertained is understanding new words. People naturally will fill in the gap of what the new word (in their mind) most likely means and if they are completely unsure they will look it up. That is the whole point.
     
  3. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Lying, dog-faced pony Marine Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I've read a number of books with words I didn't know, and the meaning generally becomes either clear or unimportant. For example, Moby Dick uses a lot of sailing terminology that I didn't know, but I quickly figured out that "stuns'ls" are something that
    a) you don't put up very often
    and
    b) make the ship go much faster if there's a good wind.

    It wasn't until I saw In the Heart of the Sea that I actually learned what they were, where they went, and why they weren't put up very often.
     
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  4. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    What @Wolf Daemon said. If you explain it to somebody who already understands the word, you're insulting them; if they don't know it, you're talking down to them.

    Just be careful that you're using the word correctly. Otherwise, you run the risk of somebody who knows the word thinking you're illiterate and, worse, pretentious because you're using big words that you don't understand.
     
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  5. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Context. The first example to come to mind is something I was just working on, where I mention a character's breastplate, pauldrons, and greaves. I don't expect everyone to know what pauldrons and greaves are (chrome certainly doesn't), but I expect they'll know what a breastplate is, and between that and the mention of the character taking them off to be more comfortable, I expect that everyone can figure out that these are bits of armor. It's an easier example, because it's a physical thing, but say I want to use a fancy word - let's say effluvium. I'm going to use it in a context where the reader can hopefully fill in a synonym in their head, and by extension figure out what the word means. If I say effluvium wafted off the pile of decay you're probably going to understand that - in this context - it's a bad smell.

    That said, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with using a character who doesn't know any better to define a word. It's as you know, bob that's usually the issue - where a character who should know better has to have something explained to them. That, and intrusive explanations, which is probably more of a pacing issue. You don't want to brake your lovely descriptions of crepuscular animals emerging at twilight to explain what crepuscular means - that's definitely a context case. But if a character has no reason to know what the word means and someone who does throws it at them, by all means have them ask. As long as the explanation's brief so as not to bored or annoy reader who're already in the know.

    I'm very tired. Hopefully this is coherent.
     
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  6. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    Storytelling is the art and craft of telling a story... not a vocabulary tour de force!
    If a word is so obscure that even within the context in which it appears, the meaning isn't obvious... why use it?
     
  7. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    Characterization.

    Sir Humphrey Appleby's character in Yes, Minister is perfectly exemplified by his delight in using words selected to be above the educational level of Jim Hacker.

    As is @Iain Aschendale 's example of stuns'ls in Moby Dick. Using studding sails wouldn't have the same old salty tang...and would have been no more comprehensible!
     
  8. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    Moby Dick was published in 1851, for an audience that would have been familiar with the word. Herman Melville did not endeavor to confuse his readers, or impress them with obscure words!
     
  9. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    The reason would be that if a word, let us take "serendipity" as an example, was not known by many and I introduced its meaning, this word encapsulating very much a large part of the theme of the narrative. Then it would make sense to introduce this term to the reader rather than having to say "it was a very fortunate set of random circumstances that led to this outcome, even though this outcome was never intentionally sought out", to say it was "serendipity" is easier to absorb if the previous explanation has already been given.

    It got me thinking when I came across the very specific word I came across today. Some words are so precise in their meaning that they are quite appealing.

    My story is about language and words. So to make use of an obscure word is part of the theme of the story.

    I cannot think of a non-cheesy way of doing it though.
     
  10. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Lying, dog-faced pony Marine Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know, Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840 (around when Melville was at sea on a whaler) uses the word "studding sails" exclusively.
    True, Moby Dick was published a long time ago, but I don't know how familiar Melville assumed (or had a right to assume) that his audience would have been familiar with the particulars of seafaring technology. I'm sure that a number of sailors read his books, but I'll bet that quite a few others did as well. To modernize the question, how well do you think current audiences understand the fine details of an internal combustion engine, or, for that matter, a computer? Pistons, rings, motherboards, flux capacitors*, all that stuff is important, but I'll bet a lot of people couldn't draw a reasonable sketch of any of them.


    *:rolleyes:
     
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  11. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    So let us say, you're writing a Detective Noir story, and the Private Detective in the story jumps into his old heap of a car... why would you need to mention the internal workings of the engine? Unless it's integral to the story, technical terms can be dumbed-down for the average reader. Science Fiction writers are the worst offenders. They'll go into long detailed exposition explaining how a certain propulsion system works, or how it is that FTL travel is possible, etc... though the science that's being explained is most often utterly impossible under the Natural Laws of the Universe. It's one of the many reasons Science Fiction has absolutely no respect in the literary community. It's because most of it is poorly written comic book fiction, strong on technical bullshit, and light on everything else that constitutes a meaningful story.
    You're supposed to engage the reader, not confuse them with highfalutin words.
     
  12. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Lying, dog-faced pony Marine Supporter Contributor

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    Well, yeah, but my point was that the reader need not understand all the details, but Melville used things like stuns'ls, and it didn't interfere with comprehension at all really. Instead of your broken down car, let's make it something fast and sexy, and have the owner comment "Yeah, this baby can move, got sixteen valve fuel injection and dual overhead cams."

    I have no idea what that really means, but from the context I can understand that those, like stuns'ls, are go-fast bits, and they add veracity to the character by showing that he knows, or is at least pretending to know, what they are. I wouldn't have him lapse into a two paragraph explanation of how to bore and blueprint an engine (another set of words I barely understand), but if he just said "Yeah, this baby can move, it's got a really good engine," it would have less of an impact.

    To pull another example, David Morrell (First Blood, Brotherhood of the Rose) has always bugged me for not having done enough research. It's in, I think, Brotherhood of the Rose or its sequel that he has someone present a bottle of ouzo as a gift/bribe to a Greek crime boss. Twenty-year old memory, so I'm sure my quote isn't exact, but it went something like:

    That's it? C'mon, you couldn't even look up (okay, this was pre-internet, but...) what a contender for the best and most expensive ouzo is? I know this isn't specifically vocabulary, but using the right words appropriately can make a big difference.
     
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  13. rktho

    rktho Contributor Contributor

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    I say pack in context clues for the uneducated or let 'em use the Google God has granted 'em. Or if it's that important do the Lemony Snicket thing.
     
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  14. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    What is the Lemony Snicket thing?
     
  15. NoGoodNobu

    NoGoodNobu Contributor Contributor

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    “Mr. Poe was a banker who had been in charge of managing the Baudelaire affairs since the fire, and I must tell you that he was not doing a very good job. His two main duties were finding the orphans a good home and protecting the enormous fortune that the children’s parents had left behind, and so far each home had been a catastrophe, a word which here means “an utter disaster involving tragedy, deception, and Count Olaf.” Count Olaf was a terrible man who wanted the Baudelaire fortune for himself, and tried every disgusting scheme he could think of to steal it.”

    Excerpt From: Snicket, Lemony. “The Miserable Mill.”

    Italics by me

    He wrote children series "A Series of Unfortunate Events"

    He often includes diction that he explains not by dictionary definition but how it fits his current story

    He does it often in the narration, throughout the whole series
     
  16. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    Okay, I will reveal a little.

    The idea is that their are a certain group of people and that they live in a world that has specific languages/dialects for specific parts of society. Because of this they are able to understand completely foreign languages having the ability to learn them very quickly.

    There are various techniques by which they are taught how to do this ans some are much better than others. Those that teach this technique are called "ostensers".

    Do any of you see what I am pointing at here? (pun unintended. Haha!)
     
  17. rktho

    rktho Contributor Contributor

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    Which he does for comedic effect. In your case you might actually tell them what the word means, and not just the context. The word catastrophe does not strictly involve Count Olaf in everyday usage, for example.
    It also depends on if it appears in dialogue or narration. If it's in dialogue, you could explain what it means in the narration. If it's in narration, you could explain the definition briefly, probably in parentheses.
     
  18. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    I am getting a bit obsessed with this. Sorry, love finding new words and exploring etymology.

    We all know "skive" and I do kind of remember "skiving" meaning to cut.

    Skiving, for those that don't know, is used as a term associated with leathercraft. It means to cut away thin strips of leather.

    It is easy to show what this means by showing the outcome.

    "He was skiving the piece of tanned hide, thin strips of leather falling to the ground"

    If we pretend we don't know what "hideous" means we can do this:

    "He was hideous. His nose a putrid and crooked thing hanging from a scarred face. Although he was ugly his hideousness did little to stop the pity people felt because of those sorrowful eyes."

    Can you think of a term that is really difficult to explain in this manner?
     
  19. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    I've only heard of skiving as a verb meaning to avoid work wherever possible..."You idle skiver!"

    This from an area of the West Midlands once renowned for its leather industry; I'm wondering if the etymology of "my" meaning comes from the fact that cutting away thin strips of leather is probably a fairly delicate business, involving more slow, careful work than operating a 100 ton drop forge - another industry once common around the area, so a skiver was somebody who didn't arrive home from a day's work dripping with sweat and physically worn out? A bit in the same way that "swinging the lead" means much the same thing, from the fact that if you were swinging the lead on a sailing ship, you were sat at the bow, just dropping a weighted piece of rope into the water and calling out the depth that the leadline indicated, while your shipmates were bustling about in the physical work of putting on sail, or taking it off, or hoisting or lowering the anchor, or even just scrubbing the decks.
     
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  20. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    Nor does it include deception; whereas I could easily understand that Count Olaf was included in the definition for comic effect, I might not feel the same about deception, and thus might be misled as to the exact meaning; and thus another malapropism is born...
     
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  21. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    Now I am guessing at the meaning of "malapropism". Don't tell me, just try and use it again. I can guess what it means easy enough though from prefix and root (I have been fooled before though due the contrary nature of the mongrel language English is.)

    I guess the more common use of "skive" today was meant as to cut away a thin piece of time so no one notices at a glance you've been elsewhere.
     
  22. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    It took a moment to understand her, because her malapropisms were close enough to the correct usage. My favourite was when she referred to the National Society for the Promotion of Cruelty to Children.
     
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  23. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    It is funny how words shift in meaning. Is there a word for that?

    An example would be "sick". Which can now mean "good", and my favourite is the bizarre "extraordinary".

    What are these? Dichotic flip? There must be an obscure term, surely?
     
  24. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    My son, on the other hand, suffered from malhorulism; perhaps it's truer to say that it was we who suffered from it; because after reading his writing, your spelling was forever questionable.
     
  25. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    "malhorulism" ?
     

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