Using Posh Words

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
One of the joys for me, as a young reader, was learning new words. I loved looking up meanings in dictionaries, gradually learning how modern English words came from ancient languages.

As an author, I try to make my use of words appropriate for the character who's speaking. For instance, a regular presence in my series of Cornish detective novels is a 65-year-old forensic pathologist. She was raised as an army brat, in India during the closing days of the British Empire, and has a formal way of speaking that's quaintly Victorian and militaristic.

As the omnipotent narrator of my stories, I'll use long and unusual words if they suit the description. Thus, a specialist auditor would scrutinise a dodgy businessman's books. I'm not showing off by doing this, more honouring my readers' intelligence.

I have a large vocabulary, but even so, I was challenged by a novel that I read recently. My eye was caught by Kim Zupan's debut novel The Ploughmen, as it was the last book in the fiction section of my local library. It's a brilliant debut crime thriller, with a highly unusual plot. Zupan looks to be in his sixties, (which gives me hope!) and is an admirable stylist in his descriptions of landscape, wildlife and weather.

He used at least twenty words that were new to me, including albedo, canzonet, arcature and bindlestiff. I guessed the meaning of the last one from the context, and it may be familiar to American members of the Colony.

Zupan's use of such words demonstrated his love of language, and it made me think about whether I was providing enough linguistic gems for my readers.

Do you use posh words?

Have you come across any good ones?
I don't use them knowingly, certainly for the sake of using them. If you need to reach for your dictionary more than once, or even once, you're being distracted. I wouldn't reach for a dictionary while writing. Or even a thesaurus. My daughter complained about the word 'mullioned' in a novel she was currently reading. Who used that word, she said. I didn't think it particularly obscure, but I deffo didn't know any of the words quoted above. 'Alb' is a clue for the first one, I suppose, hooray for Latin.
I think that's right - if you're constantly looking up words it suggests you're trying too hard. The chances are also that the reader will have to as well and that will either irritate or break the flow. Having said that, a part of the joy of reading is learning new vocabulary so as with all things, a balance is essential. I'm just reading some Will Self short stories currently and he's a great one for throwing new words into the mix. It's better on a Kindle where you can just highlight the word, get the definition, and move on.

A couple of my favourites are 'Batrachian' (meaning 'like a toad), and 'gerontophilic' (meaning liking older people).

Incidentally, are we talking about 'posh' words here, or simply 'unusual' ones?
I try to use the right word in every instance. If that means it's an unusual one, so be it. I've had beta readers question some unusual words (because they didn't know the meaning), and have found ways to make them understandable in context. Same as using slang or regional words--give enough context that the reader understands without looking it up, and the word will become an 'aha' moment, rather than a 'huh?' moment.
Context is can come across a new word, and often, yes, you can work it out that way. If it is specialised and technical, dialogue can reveal its meaning. Crichton and Frederick Forsyth are excellent at that.
For some reason I seem to have the sort of face that encourages people to give me books that they feel I should read. As a result I have a reading pile that is seriously tall.

However, one upshot of this type of face is that I get to read works that I wouldn't normally. So currently I am reading Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell. And full of unusual, or 'posh' as you state, words. The syntax gets a bit odd at times too. And I love it! Often re-reading a sentence, or looking up a word or term used, adds tremendous delight to reading. With so many historical references in this novel, published in 1863 it is set somewhat earlier in Whitby in the 1790s. It is jammed full of references to Yorkshire, sailing vessels, bucolic life and politics. I don't know how different I am to 'normal readers' (if there is such a thing) but given that this is a novel which was recommended to me you can only assume that there are other readers out there just like me who don't expect an 'easy read' by a minor celeb.

Perhaps what you are displaying is that fear that strikes us all - that no one will want to read our work, so we need to make it as attractive as possible. Don't give into your fears. Obviously, you have to bear in mind your market so whatever you write needs to be appropriate for that type of reader. but otherwise you have a free hand for what you feel is the type of prose you want to create. So use as many 'posh' words as you want to Paul! I will happily read them, and keep on reading them.
If they are natural to your writing then use them. Agree with Katie that context is king, as is audience. Also on this topic, I am against the idea that young adults or even middle grade should be written down to. Isn't one of the points (and joys) of reading to learn? Obviously not to the point of distraction, but seeing a new word in a book should be a good thing! Oftentimes, if I see a word that I don't know I can figure out the meaning through context and then search its dictionary meaning at a later time. I honestly think it's all about your audience though. Some want quick easy reads (which is fine), others want to be taken on a longer ride. You do you.

I guess, speaking as a reader, I can swing both ways. That horrible deal with the devil we all know too well, when it works it works but Lord knows what that it is.
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Alternative Flash Club Fiction

Fanfare! A teeny fanfare: being published, flash fiction born here..