Nicholas Bowling: do long words make for good writing?
At my old school I started a tradition, borrowed from my own Latin teacher, where at the end of every lesson I would teach my year 7 students a new, long, particularly abstruse English word. It began, appropriately, with “sesquipedalian”, which had come up in a discussion about the Latin word for “foot”, and from there it became a weekly fixture. True, it quickly descended into a catalogue of adjectives the boys could use to insult each other – “scrofulous,” “pusillanimous,” “etiolated” – but it was a useful way of talking about derivations and compound words and such.
Children love long words. This might come as a surprise.
One week, I didn’t have time to research a new “Word of the Day”. I assumed it wouldn’t matter – it wasn’t an official part of the syllabus, and the children never seemed to bother writing them down. In actual fact, when it came to the end of the lesson, I had a mutiny on my hands.
Children love long words. This might come as a surprise. Long words aren’t cool. They’re boring and intellectual. They’re for poindexter (read: me) sitting in the corner, reading his dictionary and pushing his glasses up his nose.
In actual fact, they appeal to children for two reasons, which might seem contradictory. Firstly, there’s an intrinsic silliness about long words – kids love trying to say them, laugh at the idea that the gobbledegook coming from their mouths actually means something. But long words also represent the opposite: they are a kind of forbidden fruit from the adult world, secret words, magic words: words fraught with power. (Whilst it might surprise us that a 12 year old is excited by the word “pusillanimous”, surely it’s expected that they’ll get a thrill out of the Latinate weirdness of Harry Potter’s spells and enchantments – but how much difference is there?)
I’m a firm believer in not underestimating or patronising young readers.
When editing Witchborn, I remember throwing a tantrum (one of many – I’m awful) about the inclusion of the word “coxcomb”. I wanted to keep it in, but there was talk about cutting it. (In actual fact, most of this misunderstanding came down to the fact that I had spelled the word incorrectly. But anyway.) I wanted to use it in its original Elizabethan sense, and I imagined my young readers to go scurrying for their dictionaries – or rather Google – and be pleasantly surprised to find out what it meant and where it came from. Perhaps this was a pathetic romanticising of both reader and author, but I knew, first hand, that children can not only cope with big, difficult words, but actually relish them.
Obviously there is a compromise. I’m not suggesting all year 7s should be given James Joyce and told to “relish” his obscurity. But I’m a firm believer in not underestimating or patronising young readers. As authors and publishers we are in the incredibly privileged position of being these children’s guides into the vast riches of language and literature, and we do them a disservice if we don’t offer them a glimpse of what lies ahead. If we talk to down to them as children, they will forever remain children – and as pleasant as that might seem, it doesn’t bode well for tomorrow’s world and the generations who will live in it.
“Coxcomb” stayed in, incidentally. So did “halberd”. So did “crenellations”. I’m waiting for one of my students to read the book, and tell me I’m sesquipedalian.