The Write Stuff

Discombobulated or just omgekrap?

2004-07-14 13:37

Some people reading the article titled "Synonymy and economy" might have thought I was opposed to the use of "big" words. I am not. I love words, whether big or small, as long as they are carefully chosen and their use is well-motivated.

I recently read an article characterised by some thesaurus-defying vocabulary and brain-stretching syntax: "We squinch at the balagan whelped of partisan eisegesis while religious katzenjammer continues to embrown our world. Spawned of the noisome agglomeration of ignorance, mental faineance and irrational fear; forged in the smithy of certitude; honed in the atelier of fellowship and sold in the thrift shop of two-penny bargains ?religion is a crucible for calamity." Breathtaking stuff (whether one agrees with the writer or not). Elsewhere, when describing someone's mood, the author uses the delightful word "discombobulated" (which my English-Afrikaans dictionary translates simply as "omgekrap"!) ?and he uses this type of language quite effortlessly throughout, as though it were an everyday mode of expression for him.

This kind of vocabulary and style does have a place, and in some types of writing plain, everyday language would be as inappropriate as a pop song in the middle of the Messiah.

At the same time there is little justification for using "big" words and important-sounding phrases just because you think plain language isn't good enough. High-sounding phrases are not necessarily better; sometimes they are little more than the products of an age that has long gone.

I'm thinking, for example, of so-called legalese and officialese - sentences like "We are in receipt of your communication of 12 inst. and wish to convey our most sincere gratitude for same." Such sentences almost demand to be replaced by ones that better reflect 21st century usage. I would simply write: "Thank you very much for your letter of February 12" (and not even bother to add "which we have received", since it's obvious we must have received it, or we wouldn't be replying!).

Would this take some getting used to? Undoubtedly - but probably only by those who are 60, 70 and 80 something - in much the same way that hearing God being addressed as You instead of Thou must have caused (maybe still does cause) some discomfort to some older church-goers. Soon, however, the old, stuffy phrases will have been forgotten and replaced by modern English, and few people are likely to grieve their passing.

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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