Words You Never Knew You Needed

Reading & Writing

In ‘Paperboy’ I list a bunch of words I didn’t know the meaning of as a child. This morning reader David Goldstraw posts on the ‘Paperboy’ blog to add his list of words he never knew, and they’re all from one book. They include:
I can help him with his query on ‘swozzle’ – it’s a small tin disc you insert at the back of the mouth to give you a funny voice like Mr Punch. Health & Safety banned them years ago, although I never heard of a kid choking on one. And ‘Snoek’ is a kind of oily fish.
The question is; if books are now targeted at particular ages, do we leave out the words that might send kids to dictionaries? (I have recently been asked to do so.)

9 comments on “Words You Never Knew You Needed”

  1. Alan says:

    Mmm – and what is wrong with using the “fun” words anyway?

  2. Brian says:

    My recommendation is that you maintain a standard of vocabulary which is your expectation of the particular age group for whom you are writing even if you suspect some of your readers may reach for the dictionary. To do otherwise is to make yourself part of the “dumbing down” process of young people which is the subject of numerous newspaper items. Ironically, this is often from the tabloids which print so many items belittling young people but fail to see that many those young people are failed by the curriculum and educational institutions which are meant to educate them to a particular standard.

    To consult a dictionary is not a negative activity. I have had the benefit of a university education followed by other educational programs and have also pursued self education in fields of personal interest. Now, in my retirement, when reading particular writers I find I still need to have my OED and Macquarie dictionary close to hand for occasional consultation. Admittedly on those occasions I may be reading specialised subjects but the point is that the writer expects me to aspire to his/her level rather than write down to mine.

    If they want you to simplify your vocabulary I would imagine they might also want a simplified syntax? What would they make of Phillip Pullman’s works which have found such popularity with young people? I suspect that a subtle part of such popularity is, perhaps, an unconscious perception that they are not being spoken down to; they are assumed to have a certain level of ability. Thus, finishing the reading of the book gives a particular satisfaction and possibly even speaks to their sense of self-worth. I’m possibly going over the top here!

  3. I.A.M. says:

    The footnote in Bryant & May on the Loose explaining what “Quisling” referred to caused me to conduct a survey of randomly selected people available within a specific data catchment area (I turned to the other side of the bed and asked Jennifer) and found that, based on responses, the populace knew about the Pro-Nazi Norwegian branded ‘a traitor’ for his passing of Allied information to the Fascist Government of the time. It seemed a bit un-necessary to me that a detail from something which entered the language only sightly more than a half-century ago — and due to an event which has shaped today’s life in so very many ways — should have to be explained in any detail. Have we forgotten so quickly these words which efficiently conjure-up a complicated image or concept?

    Pardon me, I’ll just fire off a tweet and see what the others think…

  4. Helen Martin says:

    “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” As a former-ahem, hem- teacher I’d say go ahead. Please God they WILL reach for a dictionary – even the on-line one is fine. If the right word is one they haven’t heard before they’ll expand their vocabulary. I had a rule, common to our school librarians, that if you thought a book might be too difficult you open the book at random and read a page. You turn down a finger every time you find an unfamiliar word and if you have all five down then it probably is too difficult, one or two fingers will just stretch you and none at all means you might want to look for something harder.
    Publishers have rewritten the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew to make them more “accessible”. The only thing that prevents that happening to Anne of Green Gables is the tight copyright hold the family maintains. New English students need simpler texts to facilitate language learning but native speakers most certainly do not. Even your non-favourite, Harry Potter, had a fairly advanced language level.

  5. Matthew Davis says:

    It’s not just just children’s books. International publishing is also putting self-imposed restrictions on literary authors:

    “More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.”


  6. Helen Martin says:

    This is ridiculous. If the translator can’t handle it then find a better one. Perhaps some parts are inaccessible to a non-speaker, because a phrase is just not translatable but that’s no reason to leave it out for native speakers. All you’re doing is stripping language down to bare bones (does that phrase translate?)and leaving nothing of beauty or grace. We’re not all air controllers where an ambiguous phrase can be fatal for someone.

  7. Mike Cane says:

    >>>The question is; if books are now targeted at particular ages, do we leave out the words that might send kids to dictionaries?

    Oh jaysus effin christ!!

    No, do NOT leave out the “hard” words. Tell that editor to go fuck off — but use tragically LARGE and LATIN words to do so.

    This reminds me of the book by (don’t faint, Chris!) Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan. She was told by some twat to delete “excellent” from a speech because it was an “elitist word.” She had to explain that her blue-collar relative used “excellent” all the time — as a compliment! As in: “That’s fuckin’ excellent!”

    It’s the goddam allegedly “smart” people who are dumbing every damned thing down!

    People by and large DO want to be smarter. For the ones who don’t, the HELL with them. They won’t be reading your books.

    And aw, crap. A *footnote* for Quisling?! I’d CUT that editor with a blade for that one!

  8. Mike Cane says:

    And ANOTHER thing, because this really pisses me off. Kids can go LOOK UP WORDS on the frikkin INTERNET these days, *instantly*! It’s not like when I was a kid in the 1960s and had to dig out a dictionary. Or make a LIST to take to the *library* to the LARGE dictionary to look up words! ARGH!!

  9. Shuku says:

    The more words that send kids to dictionaries, the better! If it wasn’t for a lot of the above list of words being in various books that I’ve read over the last three decades, my vocabulary would be a lot poorer, and so would my writing.

    Dumbing down words – and, by extension, books and education – is just -not- going to do anyone any favours. After having to interview three potential candidates for my last job, in which all of them listed secretarial experience (one even graduated from secretarial school), I can’t tell you how my brain felt when they -all- asked, without fail, ‘…Can I use ‘ur’ and text-message abbreviations in this letter? …Why can’t I?’ The letter in question was a -formal- letter to be written to a patient. The proper protocols would have been explained in ANY school worth its salt in my day! Not only that, half the words in the first and only paragraph of the letters that they were able to come up with were misspelled or used wrongly.

    Send the kids to the dictionaries! It’s more rewarding work than they ever do at some schools sometimes, I swear.

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