Saturday, October 15, 2011

Banish These Bookish Words

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.


  1. Dorothy - I was going to take umbrage at your brusque ramblings, but I needed to slake my preternatural thirst.

    Another time perhaps.

  2. Well, I'll be obfuscated, Mrs. Maffini!
    Now please pass me the drinks.

  3. As soon as I saw "umbrage," I knew I had heard someone use it recently. And then I remembered, it was a fellow fictional character (sorry), Marie on "Everybody Loves Raymond." In one episode she took great umbrage in a very funny manner. Maybe I should take umbrage myself sometime, but it seems like an awful lot of work.

  4. Thanks for reminding us to get off our high horses Dorothy! Your titles and covers are wonderful!

  5. I save my ire (does anyone use THAT word?) for those who use perfectly decent words the wrong way, like those who insist on 'flaunting' the law, (instead of flouting it) or insist that someone is infering something, when they are really implying it!

  6. Dorothy, you said, "I've drank." To jail you go!

  7. Most of the time when I see those words their in a crossword puzzle. It's really maddening when your reading a book and have to take time to look up a word in the dictionary. Glad you ladies know better than to use words like that in your books. Kudos to you all!!!!

  8. Wondrous Words Wednesdays:

  9. Hilarious list!

    However, I have used the words "brandish" and "brusque" in conversation many times in my life, but probably only because I was a voracious reader/writer.