By Dorothy Parker of the Algonquin Round Table Mysteries, by J.J. Murphy
I’ve drank quite a bit in my day, but I never once “slaked my thirst.” Never slaked a drop. Have you ever once heard someone say that? Have you ever said you’ve “slaked”? I didn’t think so. The only place anyone ever “slakes” is in books, and bad books at that. No one ever “slakes” in real life—no one I’ve ever met, at any rate.
Why do some writers use such words? I hate words that people use only in books, never in speech. You’ll never catch me “tucking into” a pie, for example. People who “tuck into” things should go tuck themselves, if you catch my drift.
Here are a few other words you’ll never hear anyone actually say, but you just can’t avoid them in books:
• “Brandish”—You hear this one in terms of “brandishing a weapon.” What’s happening exactly when a person “brandishes” something? I can’t even picture it. I’ll tell you, honey, if I ever see a man in the subway “brandishing his weapon,” I’ll quickly look the other way. (Then again, it depends on the size of his weapon.)
• “Take umbrage”—I’ve never taken umbrage. For one, I wouldn’t know where to take it from, or where to take it to, or what to do with it once I’ve taken it. I’d rather just leave it be. Come to think of it, you never hear about anyone “leaving umbrage” or “giving umbrage,” so how do people take it in the first place?
• “Preternatural”—Have you ever heard an actual person say “preternatural” in a sentence? Preposterous! Edgar Allen Poe might be able to get away with preternatural, but the rest of us are out on a limb, hanging by our prehensile tails.
• “Brusque”—In books about New York, the stereotypical ill-tempered waiter is often described as having a “brusque manner.” But in actual New York, we don’t bother with “brusque”—we just call him rude, and stiff him on the tip.
• “Rambling”—I’ve rambled from here to there, and even hither and yon. But how does a “large, rambling house” go about it? What does that mean when a house is “rambling”? Is it rambling down the lane? If so, someone had better go catch it and bring it back. This is why I’ve always lived in an apartment. An apartment building isn’t going anywhere. And even if it does, I’m not left standing in the street with a little house key in my hand and a big mortgage in the bank.
Listen, our job as writers is to effectively convey thoughts, ideas, feelings and actions. We can’t let words get in our way of that job. We need to use words that express, not impress. Words that communicate, not obfuscate.
There’s one for you: “obfuscate.” If you catch me obfuscating in public again, call the cops. Throw me in a cell with the guy who’s brandishing his weapon.
Dorothy Parker appears in MURDER YOUR DARLINGS: An Algonquin Round Table Mystery, available now. She and her cohorts return in YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE, available in December 2011. She also appears in the short story HAIR OF THE DOG: An Algonquin Round Table mini-Mystery, available on Kindle and Nook.