Monday, March 18, 2013

The Power of the Unknown Word

By Dan Haring

I recently read a book that I quite enjoyed. But one word stuck out to me and made me enjoy it slightly less as a whole. 

Here's the sentence. Tell me if you can pick out the word.

"Around them, the susurrus of voices and activity in the inn's barroom had diminished to a creak and whisper."

Did you find it? No, I have nothing against inns or barrooms or creaks and whispers. The word that tore me right out of the story was that little eight letter word "susurrus".

 What does susurrus mean, you may ask yourself, which is exactly what I asked myself when I read it. Now, most people would be able to take a pretty good guess at what it means, just based on context. And I was able to, and I moved along and it was fine. But as someone who loves reading and writing and words in general, it kind of bothered me that I'd never heard of the word before.

So I looked it up. According to Merriam-Webster, a susurrus is a "whispering or rustling sound."

Something like this I guess. So that's kind of cool, but it got me a bit more bothered. I feel like I have a decent vocabulary. After almost 34 years on this earth, I've consumed a lot of media, low-brow to high, and I'd never heard of this word. That part of it is fine, really. I love learning new words. I've been caught reading the dictionary from time to time. I'm not scared of new words, nor do I usually feel like I'm the smartest guy in the room.

I'm really okay with that.

What bothers me about the use of this word, is to me it's bad storytelling, for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is the fact that the author pretty much wrote, "Around them, the whispering of voices and activity in the inn's barroom had diminished to a creak and whisper."

I think you can see why that's not an ideal sentence.

So why did the author write it that way? The second reason, and what bugs me more, is to me it smacks of showing off. Ask anyone you know what susurrus means. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I'd be very surprised if anyone knows. Again, it's not my ego talking. It's just the fact that is a very uncommon word. Type susurrus in a word processor or an email. You're going to get a red squigly line underneath it, just like I'm getting when I type it here. 

So what was the point of using it? Like I said, most people don't know what it means, and I have to think the author knew that. And, knowing its meaning, it makes the sentence rather clunky.

I tweeted the fact I was bugged by this word, and got some interesting feedback. My wife's cousin, who is a great guy, a lawyer, and an avid comic book reader (take that, stereotypes!) disagreed, saying "sometimes there's only one word that will perfectly express your idea."

I countered that while this his was definitely a valid argument, I didn't think it held up in that case.

He responded, "Can't compromise to fit hypothetical reader vocabulary. Every word is going to confuse somebody out there."
Again, it's a valid argument, but again, I think it fails in this context. There are thousands and thousands of words that aren't going to confuse anyone but the most basic reader.

As a storyteller, it's your job to immerse the audience in your story. You need to get them hooked in there and make them want to stay until the whole thing is over.

And overall the author was successful in that. I really did enjoy the story. But that one little word pulled me out of it long enough to remember that it was just a story I was reading, written by some person somewhere. And for what? To use a word that no one I've asked has any clue what means in a somewhat throwaway sentence? 

Like I said, it just seems like the author was showing off. Like they have a "word of the day" email and this came up and they decided to throw it in, as if using it in their book would make them the smartest person in the room.

I don't know. Maybe I'm totally wrong about this. I'm all for expanding your vocabulary and learning new things, and if an author can instruct at the same time as entertain, that's great. And there are plenty of words I read in books that I rarely, if ever, hear in spoken conversation. I don't want to dumb down writing to fit into a certain vocabulary.

But I think storytellers need to be wise with their words. Just because they can do something, it doesn't mean they should. And if they're sacrificing the immersive quality of their story in order to throw in a shiny, rare word, I think they're making a mistake. 


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