During an online reading conference, for which I was the discussion leader (have I mentioned that I am about to complete an MFA in new media writing from Antioch University? – more on that later), several complained about the use of “obscure” vocabulary words by Michael Chabon in his book of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. For purposes of discussion, I subsequently referred to those words as what my father called “two-bit words.” I remarked that I bet we all had to look up different words, so I wondered which we could really call the two-bit ones.
Our virtual conversation about the use of these words did not go much further than a few complaints before it moved on to other topics. I was sorry that we did not delve into a related comment I made regarding the fact that Chabon’s use of some of these words seemed to hint at irony: they were contrasted with his book’s content about the need to reanalyze and revalue dismissed-as-lowbrow genres of writing such as comic books, science fiction, ghost and detective stories.
One participant referred to Chabon’s two-bit word use as being “academic” writing, and I wished I had time to get back to that comment, too, because I think it was an important one to consider. Well, I will do it here in my blog. Having read many books by university professors on the topics of new media literature / electronic literature over the last two years as part of my new media writing and MFA thesis research, I have a particular take on academic writing at the moment. As I considered the two-bit words of Chabon as being linked with the idea of academic writing, I had to disagree. Academic writing and the use of a sophisticated vocabulary are not synonymous. And it is important that the distinction be made and they not be confused.
In reference to the term “entertainment,” in the first paragraph of the first page of the first essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” in Maps and Legends, Chabon writes:
It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle, the fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby, . . . . (Chabon 1).
I had to look up “miasma.” It means:
1. A harmful or poisonous emanation, especially one caused by burning or decaying matter, and 2. An unwholesome or menacing atmosphere (Encarta).
“The fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby” is a wonderful methaphor for describing a ridiculing attitude about entertainment – as Chabon is attempting to do. First, he links the idea of entertainment with a movie theater. Then he induces the reader’s sense of smell and memory. These are powerful ways to engage a reader. Chabon could have used a more generally accessible word, like “smell” – “the fake-butter smell of a movie house lobby.” But it would not have meant the same thing. It would not have been so beautifully descriptive. It would be just a smell. Same thing for other penny words like “odor” or “stink.” Any of those three words implies that our nasal passages are not pleased when encountering the molecules emanating from stale popcorn and rancid fake butter, but they do not have the added adjectival depth that “miasma” does with its reference to a smell that is harmful or poisonous in addition to being unpleasant. Nor do “smell,” “odor” or “stink,” let us know that the source of the olfactory emanation is something that is burning or decaying matter (the popcorn or old fake butter). And “smell,” “odor” or “stinking” fake butter certainly do not conjure the ideas of “unwholesome” or “menacing atmosphere” of the second “miasma” definition, either. And that definition is most appropriate when tying Chabon’s metaphor of fake butter to entertainment, for that is the whole point of his essay: that entertainment is considered by many not only to be harmful and disgusting but unwholesome and a menace to “good,” “serious” literature and the high-brow people who try to remain pure by reading only high-minded literature.
If a writer is a wordsmith, should not she then develop her knowledge and use of words as fully as possible in order to be as descriptive as possible? In order to imbue her work with the depth of meaning that a broad vocabulary is capable of doing? This also implies that a reader has the responsibility to enhance her own vocabulary so that she can participate in the richness of a great wordsmith’s offerings.
There is a difference between using carefully selected words and words that serve only to obscure, or words that are only pretentious and add no new meaning or depth to a written or spoken statement. In a college class I teach I told a student that he knew something because he had “apriori” knowledge. It was a term I had drummed into my own head during semiotics lectures in an undergraduate college film class in San Francisco, and it had stuck with me due to the unpleasant circumstance of it.
In a lab exercise designed to make us look at the world without preconception, I was graded down for using “apriori knowledge” when I mentioned a “cyclone fence.” The teacher would not change my “D” grade after I explained that my use of the word cyclone in the term “cyclone fence” could not be attributed to my apriori knowledge of the use of those fences for cyclone protection (as he contended) because up until the moment of his explanation to me, I had not known that cyclone fences had anything to do with cyclones, they were just a metal fence I had grown up seeing around playgrounds in California. Since that day, I carried an irritated grade memory and the term “apriori” with me.
My own student did not know what “apriori” meant, and when I explained that it meant he had prior knowledge of something we had been discussing, he asked me why then didn’t I just say “prior” knowledge. The rest of the students looked up as they are inclined to do when a student corrects a teacher, and I had to laugh. He was right, I told him. There was no reason at all for me to use the word apriori in that case, it was pompous and unnecessary. The next week when I explained how they all needed to differentiate the companies for which they were designing web site interfaces and product packaging, making their designs unique to help their companies stand out in a sea of competitors, they agreed that the word differentiate was a valuable one and not easily replicated with a lesser word. I was particularly moved the following quarters when I overheard these same students using “differentiate” in other contexts during social setting conversations.
Miasma is a valuable and unique word. It belongs in the palette of wordsmiths and readers. So, too, with the other two-bit words used by Chabon. They serve to clarify, not obfuscate, and shame on any of us readers who shy away from learning them, stop our educations before we do or dismiss them as being highbrow.
A Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade . . . (Chabon).
solipsistically: With consideration only for one’s own interest (Encarta).
Sparkling with epiphanic dew . . . (Chabon).
epiphanic: of or having the character of an epiphany (Mirriam Webster).
to be continued