Serious Eats is a favourite blog of mine, not only because they understand the superiority of Chicago cuisine and thus have devoted a sub-blog to it, but also because they’re extremely transparent, given the kind of site they are. They joke with each other across posts, show off Dumpling the Serious Eats mascot dog, talk about the process of creating content, and do stuff like post their list of “banned” words that they keep in an actual communal Google doc for reference.
“A list of banned words from the website is a subtly different from the many, many, many lists of “words foodies hate” that you see going around the web [...] These ones aren’t necessarily words that grate our ears (though some of them definitely are), but are words that are simply bad descriptors, overused, or plain silly.”
Most of the phrases listed are essentially cutesy versions of more grownup words, which makes sense. Irreverence is fine, but professionalism is still the watchword, and that’s how it should be.
I don’t have a list of words I don’t use, because frankly I’d never remember it. I find that for me, not using words tends to derive (regrettably) from the humiliation of being asked not to use them, or of having someone pointing them out. I will never forget being sixteen and having someone on the internet tell me to stop using “kewl” because I look like a moron. The thing is, they were totally right.
Joe Orton, a brilliant playwright in the mid sixties (tragically murdered early — “Prick Up Your Ears” is a great biography of him and a decent biopic) used to keep lists of words he liked in his notebooks, which I’ve always found a more positive way of looking at things. Not that I do that, either, but it seems better to focus on what we enjoy doing than what we oughtn’t to do.
It’s this kind of attitude that gets me in trouble with organised religion.
One of the ultimate tools in a writer’s skill set is an extensive vocabulary. It’s not about being able to use long words in place of short ones or complicated words in place of simple ones, but about being able to use the right word to evoke an emotion or a vision in the reader’s mind. The precise use of language is incredibly important, and also incredibly difficult, because we often agree as a society on general meanings but get bogged down when it comes to specifics.
As with most writerly skills, the best way to acquire a good vocabulary and the ability to apply it properly comes down to reading.
My ex-roommate and I watch a lot of Wheel Of Fortune. A LOT of it. And with this repetition comes a certain recognition of pattern: Final Wheel is always a much more complicated, much shorter sequence of words than ordinary Wheel Of Fortune, because it’s not player-versus-player now, it’s player-versus-puzzlemaker. The words are specifically chosen to contain as few as possible of the most commonly-used letters in the English language (R, S, T, L, N, and E) and to use very rarely-used letters like W, Y, and J. But it’s not easy to see that if you don’t watch the show a lot.
Repetition leads to familiarity, which in turn leads to pattern recognition. The more you read, the more you absorb the structures of language, and the more you internalize the compelling, dramatic, and evocative in literature.
And, of course, the more you learn what words not to use.