Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Big Words, Tough Guy

by Michael W. Sherer, thriller author

Our Strange Lingo

When the English tongue we speak.

Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it's true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose,and lose.

And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone -
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don't agree.

Lord Cromer, published in the Spectator of August 9th, 1902

As writers, our job demands that we use language to communicate ideas, paint mental pictures, stimulate the imagination and the senses. English, as the poem above reminds us, is one of the hardest languages to master because it’s a mutt. It’s a conglomeration of the Romance languages and their root language Latin, several Germanic tongues, with a whole lot of Babel thrown in.

The wondrous thing about language, especially English, is that if we don’t have a word for something, we simply make one up. Think “twerking,” “tweeting” and “T-ball.” How about “gigabyte,” “hackerspace,” “bitcoin,” “phablet” or “digital detox,” all words and phrases that have resulted from our use of digital technology. Words like “fauxhawk” and “geek chic” describe things in the fashion world. “Selfie” and “LDR” (long distance relationship) describe parts of our social lives.

Just as new words come into favor, old ones fall out of fashion. We no longer use “affictious,” but use “counterfeit” instead. We probably wouldn’t use “pigritude” anymore, or even “slothfulness,” to describe a teenager’s laziness, though they’re all similar in meaning. And I’ll bet you never encountered “surgation” in any of the Fifty Shades… books, though there was a lot of it going on. (You’re on your own with that one.)

Language must be flexible, adaptable, but the loss of words sometimes saddens me. Recently, I was surprised, too, by the disappearance of a wonderful website called, run by the Oxford Dictionary. The little-used words it posted have been archived, and the group has a  Facebook page (

Blake Sanders, my series protagonist, often uses obscure words to describe situations in which he finds himself. He isn’t trying to obfuscate the narrative, nor is he bloviating. First, he has ADHD, which tends to make him say the first thing that comes to mind, and makes him connect to things in ways which don’t seem logical to most people. He also spent years in communications, giving him background in word usage.

More importantly, however, Blake (and I) like to use colorful, less common words, when common, less colorful words just aren’t enough. In Night Blind, for example, he describes the scene of his friend Midge’s murder this way: “Ferruginous splatters of blood coated the pale linoleum floor like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas.” Perhaps the word “ferruginous” slows you down in your reading of this passage. But Blake wants you to slow down. He wants you to take in the horror of what he sees. And ferruginous is to his way of thinking a better word than “rust-colored.” To him, it sounds better and implies the gelatinous look of coagulating blood that is oxidizing and turning brown.

In Night Blind, Blake reminisces about how his son Cole used to call the random things that came out of Blake’s mouth, “purple.” So in Night Tide, (the second book in the series), when Blake gets a weird idea out of the blue, he says, “The most ianthine notion I’d ever had filled my overtaxed brain.” Could he have used the word “purple”? Sure. And sharp readers would have caught on to what he meant (“random”). But “ianthine” is even more random.

Here are some other uncommon words Blake has used: gobbets, eremitical, crepuscular, chivvy, gormless, pother, ruction, exiguous, subfusc, glister, ineluctable, insidious and gangrel, to name a few.

Does it madden you to run into words you don’t know in the middle of a narrative? Or do you like keeping pencil and paper or even a dictionary close by to check on unfamiliar words? Should authors stick to an “abecedarian,” that is to say, rudimentary eighth grade vocabulary? Or should language suit both the character and the situation? Weigh in!

Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.

He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.


  1. Love the poem. As a former Adult Literacy tutor and tutor-trainer, we dealt with the vagaries of our language constantly. For me, I agree that language should remain true to the character. (And since I do much of my reading on an e-reader, all I have to do is press an unfamiliar word and I can look it up without needing a dictionary nearby)


  2. One of my favorite non-crime fiction authors is Anne Rivers Siddon. I keep a notepad nearby to jot down words I want to look up later. She doesn't necessarily use obscure words, but she can definitely push their meanings.

    If a word is right, it's right. Especially when it's in character. I've battled with critique partners over the years who wanted me to remove a word and "dumb it down" for readers. Not gonna happen.

  3. I lean in the other direction. Maybe it's my journalism background, or my working class characters, but I try to use language that most readers will be comfortable with. I keep in mind that the average person reads at an eight-grade level and that reading shouldn't feel like homework. But that's just my approach to the genre I write in. And readers like different styles. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.