Thursday 19 April 2012

Plinth and logophile

Together we managed to haul out what remained of the statue (head and torso and one arm), cleaned her battered body (but not too much), and propped her up against a wall, where she slumped, exhausted, a study in survival against the odds.
‘Do think she might preside over us?’ I asked. ‘When she recovers, obviously.’
He laughed, still out of breath. ‘I’d hope so, after all that.’
‘We could find her a nice spot.’
‘A plinth!’
He found her one, too: a plain cube of sandstone.

                                                                          From The Lantern

Plinth. It never occurred to me that a word like “plinth” could be troublesome. It’s the base on which a pillar or statue rests. But when I can gather the courage to have a look around the internet to see what the blog reviewers and readers are saying, I do find a fair few complaining that my vocabulary is too esoteric.

Well yes, I do have a decent command of the English language because I’m well-educated and interested in other languages too: I speak fluent French, basic German, and studied Latin at school. I enjoy words. And, quite importantly, in The Lantern the narrator Eve is a translator whose business is to choose words carefully.

There’s a separate point about why readers shouldn’t expect writers to write with confidence and flourish – when surely we’d expect professional sportsmen to play to the best of their ability without muttering darkly about them showing off, or musicians to give their best performances, or artists paint the best pictures they can?

Sometimes though, it’s simply the difference between English and American English. I was reminded of this when someone pointed out, at the end of my previous post, that “smartened up” was a very English phrase, meaning “spruced up”, cleaned and tidied. As I was writing about a place, I might equally well have used the term “gentrified”.

Most British people would be completely familiar with the word plinth, especially if they were garden enthusiasts. Just think how much worse the misunderstandings might have been if I’d gone for stylobate or crepidoma (look it up here!).

I’m going to invite the very funny British comedienne Miranda Hart, clearly a logophile herself, to have the final word. Watch out for the King of Words… (I so hope that this very short YouTube extract is accessible in the US – if not, I suggest searching for Miranda Hart + Moist Plinth.)


Kate said...

Sheer enjoyment of the words is one of my greatest pleasures when reading - so much so that I often read bits out loud just to savour the sound of the words. I get so tired of things being 'dummed down' all the time. If there's a word I don't know, I look it up. Reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary :-) I would say stay true to yourself and the way you love to write - unless you specifically want to target a particular readership but I believe it's not that easy to change your style in order to do that.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I love words and learning new ones. And the best way to learn new ones is through reading. Like plinth. I, too, don't like the dumbing down of the English language. And "they" say you shouldn't read reviews!

Libby said...

Don't change! Wouldn't you rather appeal to the more intellectual audience anyway. I like British English. Having watched every episode of Keeping Up Appearamces (twice!) I think I understand it (haha!). I have been doing a great meme over at every Wednesday called Wondrous Words Wednesday. We keep track of unfamiliar words we come across in our reading and then share them and talk about what they mean, from where they originated, and so on. It's a lot of fun and I love learning something new every time I join them. ( By the way, thanks for stopping by to see the Book Spine Poems. My dad loved your comment!)

renilde said...

I fully agree Deborah, language is the writer's tool and he/she should use the best and to his/hers satisfaction. x

Elizabeth Young said...

Absolutely love this very British humour! LOL

Sara Louise said...

If we don't use all of these 'esoteric' words, we'll lose them and they'll disappear from the language all together, so please keep telling us what words like 'plinth' mean :)

Lisa Erin said...

Interesting how some would criticize you for having a command of the English language, rather than commend you for it. I posted some time ago about an internet site set-up for people to adopt words to use in an effort to save them from being removed from our dictionaries. More people should make an effort to strengthen their English with words new to them, rather than let those words get stricken from Websters.

Muriel said...

From my eight years or so in London, I believe that there are words and British words. In short, unlike you, I am still learning. That said, most of the time, the difficult words (such as inertia, or even plinth), are French/latin. It feels good to understand them.

aguja said...

Fantastic post, Deborah, and as I am passionate about words, too, and because your vocabulary within your books (and no doubt outside of them)is so aptly chosen, it makes me sad that people wish to make do with the same words rearranged rather than finding that one choice word; also that they often see good use of vocabulary as daunting or showing off, when it is actually exercising the language, sharing it and delighting readers.

I loved the Amanda Hart clip.

James Kiester said...

I'm with you, I hate dumbing down my word usage so the least educated reader can follow along. Even characters which use "whom" correctly have been called "too highbrow" by some publishers.

Shelley said...

I have just begun reading this fabulous book and as I came across the quoted passage, I could only smile and think of the lovely Miranda Hart. I now think that plinth is one of my favourite words and that it will continue to make me smile whenever I hear or read it. :)

K said...

I don't see how using words like 'plith' could be considered as 'showing off' (I mean, that's what it's called!). Like a painter, a writer creates an impression/ textures of the world they are trying to convey to their readers.
So the more diverse and varied the language you use in your work the better in my opinion. If every writer used the same words, then the reading experience would be flat and boring.

In 'The Lantern' for example, I found that you painted the landscape and characters with your words beautifully and your choice of words added to my enjoyment of the book.

In any case if a reader doesn't understand words used in something they are reading, why don't they look them up in a dictionary!?

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