Posted by: Jodi | July 6, 2011

When Vocabulary Isn’t Your Friend

Meet Caillou

In recent weeks my children have decided that their favorite TV show is the cartoon Caillou.  This isn’t a problem, the show tries hard to teach life lessons to preschool and younger children. These lessons have included thrilling topics such as the ever vague, “Use your imagination”, the slightly less vague, “Sometimes the cat gets lost”, and the ever popular “Wheel thrown pottery is fun for young kids.”  No, I am not making any of these up.

One of the available episodes is supposed to be focused on words and vocabulary.  In the intro segment Caillou’s trio of favorite toys (reincarnated as puppets) do a brief sketch to emphasize the theme.  In this episode they decide that they will learn a new word everyday.  So far so good.  The teddy bear cracks open the dictionary and chooses the word “plethora”.  Again I can’t complain, I like the word plethora.  Then the dinosaur chooses his word.

Pulchritudinous.

Not kidding.  This is a preschool show.

If my child used this word in public people would think that they were speaking in tongues.  For those interested, pulchritudinous means beautiful – although it sounds an awful lot like a skin disease.

There are times where having a bounteous vocabulary can serve a writer very well.  A hefty multi-syllabic word might be just the thing to add needed interest or intellectualism to a written work.  However – and this is a big however – know that sending readers to consult a dictionary is not a way to win friends or influence people.  Most don’t have the time or interest to do so anyway.  This means readers lost, and we all know that is never a good thing.

So before you are tempted to hit that handy thesaurus up for a whopper of a word, think twice.  Your clever attempt might be stultified.

About these ads

Responses

  1. Great advice, and I often have a hard time following it. Although I do find that it depends on your audience, or your target readers (which you basically said, but in a different way).

    I have referred to this very problem of mine at least a couple of times in my blog:

    http://paulatohlinecalhoun1951.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/k-i-s-s/

    Thanks for another great post, and excellent reminder, (totem, welt, monitor, admonisher, caveat, executory, memento mori, etc., etc.)

    • There are times when we know there is a word out there that would be just the right fit and can’t remember it. This is when consulting a thesaurus is helpful. Lately it seems I can’t remember my name half the time and having somewhere I can turn to fill in the blanks is great. As for the K.I.S.S. principle, I live by it everyday!

  2. Yes, I hate looking up words in the dictionary when I read. I hate stopping the action. Sounds like Cailou is a show that doesn’t know their age group and if it’s aimed at adults, well you should tell them to read your blog post.

    • I absolutely agree. I want to read a story for interest and excitement. I can provide myself with vocabulary growth by learning a word a day on my own.

    • I find that even when I have no clue what the word is, if the author has phrased it well, at least I get a vague idea. However, when they leave me no clues it’s irritating to, like you said, stop the action to consult a dictionary.

  3. Brilliant, please let me know if your kid manages to fit that one into a sentence somewhere! Can’t agree enough about the thesaurus. It’s a foolhardy author that relies on shift+F7 too much… handy when you just can’t think of a decent synonym however.

    • He has yet to fit in the whopper of pulcritudinous into a sentence, but you should hear the things he does say! I guess it’s part of having a writer for a mom, he hears all sorts of things that normal people don’t say.

  4. When I need to resort to the thesaurus, I have a habit of copying the sentence to my outline folder with a few different words in it. Then I’ll read it aloud every now and then to see which word has the right “fit”. Sometimes, one word will pop out as being perfect. It may be that, because of the number of letters, it contributes to the rhythm of the sentence. Sometimes, it is alliteration that works. Often as not, none of the words are right and the perfect one won’t come to me until weeks or even months later.

    • That’s a great way of finding the perfect fit – thanks for sharing it with us! Sometimes you do have to just try many different words and phrasing until you find the right fit.

  5. A pulchritudinous post, Jo! ;)

    • Thanks :)

  6. I just watched this episode today with two of my two & three year old children and was rather underwhelmed with the choice of “puchritudinous.” I think I laughed aloud.

    On the other hand, one of my favorite reading experiences has been to read Nabokov, whose vocabulary in English (his second?third? language) far exceeds my own, and often exceeds even the several dictionaries I use. I end up with a new vocabulary word every page or half page, and am usually astounded at how precise his word choice is. Cumbersome for the reader, no doubt, but somehow he manages it and I am enriched!

    • I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thought that the word choice was a little far fetched. I haven’t read Nabokov but have heard good things, I’ll have to add it to my list. Thanks for coming by!

  7. Interesting post. I think I would have spit my drink if I would have been watching that show. What do you think as well about the thoughts of the vocabulary of each individual character? I feel as an author that it’s not my vocabulary I should be most worried about.

    • Most of the time I don’t have any problem with how the different characters speak. The language used normally matches what I would expect from that character.

      It’s true that the language and vocabulary used needs to agree with who is using it and must be consistent throughout the story. It’s not really what the writer knows but what the character would say or not.


Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,656 other followers

%d bloggers like this: