The right words in the right order
There are three kinds of words. First, there are practical, workaday words which never stray outside the bounds of the dictionary and get the job done with a minimum of fuss, though perhaps not with a great deal of excitement or sparkle; honest, open words, the staple of both readers and writers alike.
Then there are those words which push the boundaries of the dictionary; never leaving it but not content to nestle safely constrained by precision. We often don’t notice these words right away but rather become aware that something has transformed the passage just read and only later realise the alchemy these words have performed.
Finally, there are words which rise above themselves, either because they go beyond their own meaning or shine brighter than all the possible synonyms, like the star which fixes the shape of a constellation. Often these may be words with which the reader is unfamiliar or within the context on the page. It’s a reasonable expectation, though, that when a reader finds an unfamiliar word, they’ll be able to look it up in a dictionary.
It is a delicate balance, part of the craft of writing, to use each kind of word best possible way. Most problematic are the last, especially those which are not common and unlikely to be known by the average reader. Too many and their impact is diminished by the readers’ uncertainty. A good writer is careful in the use of strange or difficult words; it is a fine line between respecting readers’ intelligence and throwing a gauntlet in their face. And, if it comes to a joust, the reader will always defeat the writer simply by quitting the lists.
We want to challenge our readers, not alienate them.
It is said that Shakespeare introduced more than 2,000 words into the English language. That’s quite a feat of linguistic imagination, considering that Elizabethan English contained somewhere between 50,000-60,000 words, and the average everyday vocabulary was around 500 words. Single-handedly, single-mindedly, Shakespeare seems to have shovelled new words into our language. He did remarkably well, especially when we think upon the fact that in all his plays, Shakespeare used only 17,677 different words. So, the greatest playwright of all time, and the most popular of his time, made up 11% of the range of words he used.
Frankly, I’ve always been rather sceptical about Shakespeare’s reputation as an incorrigible inventor of words; and, an inventor not in a Lewis Carroll way, with whimsy and fantasy, but in a precise and deliberate way, making up words he intended everyone to take seriously and understand in the way he wanted them to be understood. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a great admirer of Will’s and am the first to admit that we owe him a huge debt. Just not that debt, though, because it doesn’t make sense.
Shakespeare was a popular playwright and one of the first rules of being a popular writer is not to baffle your audience. He certainly didn’t baffle them with plot. There would have been few among the audience who didn’t know that Macbeth was going to come to an unpleasant end, or who were unaware that Richard wasn’t going to prevail on Bosworth field; or who couldn’t predict, by the end of the first act, that Antonio wasn’t going to have to provide Shylock with a dozen prime ribs. To think that he would have bombarded his audiences with a lot of words they’d never heard before – at the rate of about 50 a play (we have to distribute his neologisms across all his works, sonnets and longer poems as well) – beggars belief.
Admittedly, many of the new words were simply different forms of known words, changing nouns to verbs, adding prefixes or suffixes and a smattering of (often) anglicised Latin or Greek words. But what would his audience have made of Mistress Page’s ‘I was then frugal of my mirth‘; or of Armado’s ‘I did encounter that obscene and most preposterous event‘? Both ‘frugal’ and ‘obscene’ are among those words the Bard is given credit for inventing and in neither case is the meaning obvious from the context – and a theatre audience can’t re-read the passage, or yell to those on stage, “Hold on, hold on; what was that last line? Fruitful of mirth? What’s that mean, then?” Blessed are the cheese-makers, indeed.
There are several reasons I can think of that explain Shakespeare’s apparent habit of creating new words. Such explanations, though, are of more interest to scholars than to writers. The lesson that Shakespeare provides to writers, though, is how, even with a pool of words less than one-tenth our own (and that is excluding an equal number of technical and specialist terms not found in any normal dictionary) he made using words, be they workaday words, alchemical words or constellation words, such an art without being artful. He knew how to please his audience, how to flatter them, how to challenge them. The right words in the right order was far more important than just keeping it simple.