Missing Persons WORDS.

I want to talk about words. There are good ones (the solid old Anglo-Saxon ones, often single syllable, and very concrete, like rock, earth, tree, stone, bread, love, sky) and the ‘bad ones’,which for me are usually poly-syllabic, newer, or Latinate. Cerebral. Adverbial.

Hemingway knew the worth of single words. His style was characterised by ‘clarity and force.’ [1]

He stressed the function of the individual word, wrote five simple sentences for every complex one, used very few similes, repeated words and phrases, emphasised dialogue rather than narration. He expressed his violent themes in limpid, focused, perfectly controlled prose… His style was precise and exact, yet highly connotative; spare and bare, yet charged with poetic intensity.

He knew the power of old words. William Faulkner took a swipe at Ernest, saying

[Hemingway] had no courage, never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.

Perhaps Faulkner thought he was getting a jab in there, hopefully prodding a nerve by accusing Hemingway of cowardice, but anyway, the reply

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. [2]

It was this quotation from Hemingway that made me see words differently, and it really resonated with me. It made utter sense and I’ve never forgotten it. You try it. Use the old simple words and the prose will sing. The books I find myself quickly enthralled with usually have prose that is not obtrusive, that doesn’t catch your eyes.

Here is a quotation from Virgina Woolf (via Tavi Gevinson, I think I took it down as a note watching her recent talk at the MWF):

Words, English words, are full of echoes of memories, of associations – naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages… Our business is to see what we can do with the English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

I disagree with Woolf that ancient meanings encapsulated in the old Anglo-Saxon words are a problem, or or a difficulty. Those meanings are a gift, a shorthand, like a divining stick that touches a person’s brain and brings forth meaning. I reckon it’s when these words are diluted with ‘bad’ or ‘messy’ words, ‘impure’ words that prose becomes problematic.


[1] – Hemingway – A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, p140
[2] – Papa Hemingway – AE Hotchner
Article on just this: http://corrinejackson.com/wordpress/2013/04/23/tuesday-writing-tips-anglo-saxon-vs-latinate-diction/



4 thoughts on “Words

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog A Common Reader. You have a very nicely designed and content-full blog here – I like it a lot. This article is very interesting. I have to say I had to resort to the dictionary quite a few times while reading The Goldfinch!

    The reason English has become so predominant around the world is it’s immense flexibility – even today it is evolving so fast that people of my age have to work hard to keep up with changing meanings and new dialects. Those nations which speak a version of English such as “Chinglish” as is spoken in Hong Kong would find it hard to communicate with an elderly English person, so different are the usages.

    A recent article in The Times of London described a completely new version of multi-cultural English which has emerged in the East End of London. The linguistic scientists, believe that what they call Multicultural London English (MLE) is a dialect combining elements of West Indian, South Asian, Cockney and Estuary English.

    I wonder what poor Virginia would have made of all this – I fear that people of her rather elevated social class would have been quite outpaced by it all!

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