In my last post, I mentioned that the four major elements I consider when I’m deciding which word to use are specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. Today, we’re tackling esotericism — or, simply put, how likely it is that people have encountered the word before.
When I was a kid, my younger sisters wanted to read the books that I read, and (because at that time in my life I was completely insufferable) I told them that they wouldn’t understand because my books had a lot of “big words.”
“Like what?” my middle sister challenged me (because even as a kid, she knew her worth).
I cast desperately about for an example. “Like ‘mar,'” I said. “And ‘cur.'” Unsurprisingly, these three-letter words failed to impress.
Now that I’m older, I’ve realized two things: first, you should never tell a kid what she can’t read. Second, what we call “big words” are often actually esoteric words. They’re words that we are unlikely to have encountered in our daily lives, words that we might have to puzzle out or that might have a context-specific meaning.
The most important thing to remember is, no two people are going to have the same bank of words they know — not even if they were raised in the same house, went to the same school, and read the same books. Chance encounters with new vocabulary happen every day; I most recently learned new words from a video game (aphotic), a scientific article (neutropenia), and a piece of erotica (petrichor). Every job I’ve ever done has its own specialized vocabulary, whether it’s the language of rhetoric or the names of a photographer’s tools or the medical terminology used in clinical research. The further you step outside of your home language community, the more likely you are to encounter new words.
Therefore, and I cannot stress this enough: words are not esoteric by nature; words are esoteric relative to the reader.
The effect of encountering an esoteric word is often a pause, followed by a little work on the reader’s part. Some readers may hesitate, then skim past an unfamiliar word, expecting that context will help to fill in the gap if it’s important. Others will take out a phone or a dictionary and look the word up. Some will sit for a moment, rereading the word, trying to figure out what it means based on other words they know. In all three cases, the esoteric word requires effort to parse, and for me, it’s important to make that work easier and to repay the reader’s effort.
There are several reasons why you might want to use an esoteric word. Perhaps it’s a term for something specific that you want to include as a detail; perhaps you enjoy the way it sounds. In the example below, we’ll use one of my favorite sets of esoteric words — the names of minerals — to show how you can make the work easier and more rewarding for readers.
They were surrounded by crystals, some peacock-blue, others deep red or flame-golden.
They were surrounded by chrysocolla and carbuncle and carnelian.
They were surrounded by crystals, peacock-blue chrysocolla and deep red carbuncle and flame-golden carnelian.
In these examples, we veer between two extremes: in the first, the words are not particularly esoteric, but they feel vague and nonspecific, which cuts down on their richness. In the second example, the author just plunks down the esoteric words for types of minerals without providing any kind of context — not even what general category they fall into — to help the reader understand them. They sound very pretty with their hard “c” initial sounds, but their meaning is unclear.
In the third example, though, the author uses the esoteric words as an appositive (a word or phrase that renames something else in the sentence) for “crystals,” so it’s clear to the reader that all three unfamiliar words are examples of crystals. Moreover, by listing the rocks with their associated colors, the author teaches the reader something about each rock.
There are other circumstances where you would want to use esoteric words, such as when you want to show a character’s expertise. In these cases, the basic principle of appositives can help readers make sense of the esoteric words. If you have a character who’s using a stream of esoteric words (whether it’s “technobabble” or realistic field-specific jargon), it can be helpful to have someone rephrase the gist of those esoteric words into more everyday words. This can be an excellent opportunity for characterization, too. Some of the best science communicators know how to slip between verbal registers and levels of complexity in order to make their work accessible to non-experts; some of the worst so-called “experts” retreat hissing behind a wall of jargon when anyone has the temerity to suggest that they might not actually know what they’re talking about.
A final case where you might want to use esoteric words is to draw attention to a key concept (either a plot point or a kind of leitmotif or repeating musical theme). Tolkien did this a lot with his constructed languages; he did not expect readers to come into Lord of the Rings knowing what a mallorn or a Balrog was, or whether you ate lembas or fought it off with a stick. But these things were special in his world, infused with power and meaning, and so he chose to construct names for them instead of letting them be Tree and Monster and Bread.
That doesn’t mean you have to be Tolkien, and frankly many people would rather you not. But sometimes, your story revolves around the Atlas Stone or the Singing Hands; sometimes it’s key to a character’s presentation that she always wears a widow’s black bombazine or that he’s dressed to the nines in an embroidered sherwani. Each time that esoteric term arises, you have an opportunity to add a new detail: the cloudy blue surface of the stone, the elegance of her hands as they weave a spell or a story, the rustle of bombazine fabric or how the cut of the sherwani flatters his trim waist. These details will accumulate over time, arising in the reader’s memory like ghosts each time the unfamiliar term appears.
But remember: you’re never going to be able to account for every reader’s mental storehouse of words, and you shouldn’t have to. Not a single one of these tools would’ve helped eight-year-old me figure out “mar” or “cur,” because the author could not have anticipated that she would introduce me to them.
Your readers have more access to dictionaries than ever before, and sometimes, it’s okay to make people use them.