I love short words and short sentences. I go to work every day grateful for the strong and simple verbs and nouns bequeathed to the wonderful English language by its Anglo-Saxon heritage, just as I hate the long and pompous words derived from Latin, its other principal source — words like "implemenation," which have no movement or life. I always choose short words over long words that mean the same thing. "Assistance" means "help." "Numerous" means "many." "Currently" means "now." An "individual" is a man or a woman or a child. Some of my sentences have so many one-syllable words that I could be arrested for sending them out into the world. When I read aloud to students a sentence that I love for its simple strength — perhaps by Mr. Lincoln
or Mr. Thoreau
— they think I'm kidding. They can't believe that simple is good. "If I write like that, people will think I'm stupid," they say. Stupid — I tell them — like E. B. White
and the King James Bible.
But I also love to find a long or unusual word that's exactly right for the situation — one that I know will please the reader with its unexpectedness; surprise is the most refreshing commodity in nonfiction writing. Here are three sentences from my book Writing Places that gave me pleasure when they finally fell into place:
I was one of the first magazine writers to go to San Francisco in the winter of 1967 and bring back news of the 'love hippies' who had descended on the Haight-Ashbury district, decked out in 'ecstatic dress' and drugged out on LSD — flower children running away from their parents in the slumbering suburbs. I had no way of knowing that I had climbed aboard a wave that would move at tsunami speed. By June it had washed a huge tide of ragged postulants to San Francisco, where they camped out on the streets for a 'summer of love' that the city's safety and health authorities hope never to see the likes of again.
Beyond the small felicities — the alliterations and metaphors — that give the paragraph its sense of enjoyment, the idea that I was having a good time stitching it together — I really like "postulants." It's maybe my favorite word in the whole book. I don't think I've ever used it before, but it sprang from some recess of my mind when I was looking for a word to describe young men and women eager for admission to a religious order. I like to find precise words from a special discipline, like religion or medicine or music or carpentry, and use them in a general context.
Last March I wrote a piece for the New York Times on the Sunday before the opening of the baseball season, timed to the much-ballyhooed unveiling of the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets' new Citi Field. One paragraph said:
I assume that the new stadiums will feature the newest advances in audio-visual assault. I stopped going to Mets games at Shea Stadium when my friend Dick Smolens and I could no longer hear each other talk between innings — such was the din of amplified music and blather from the giant screen in center field. But baseball is also a game of silences. Every half-inning it invites its parishioners to meditate on what they have just seen and to recall other players they once saw performing similar feats. Memory is the glue that holds the game together.
Again, from the vocabulary of religion, "parishioners" is my favorite word in the article. It has the precise meaning of a like-minded group of people assembled in temple for a sacred ritual. One more dip into the liturgical soup: in Writing Places I recall several magazine editors who kept me busy with writing assignments. "Pamela Fiori, editor of Town & Country, which for a century had catechized its readers on the manners of the Eastern establishment, found me useful as her house WASP, a writer born into that milieu who knew its curious customs." Maybe that sentence will catechize a few writers in the benefits of surprise.
Medicine is also rich in special terminology waiting to be put to general use — all those words like "sclerotic" and "stenosis" that doctors so glibly throw at us. Fifty years later I still remember a sentence by S. J. Perelman that mentioned the peristaltic prose of the columnist Max Lerner. No amount of time spent rummaging in your brain for exactly the right word is misspent; your readers will smile at your effort to please them — always a good day's work. (Two English writers who keep me smiling over their choice of words are John Banville and the late John Mortimer. )
What I most fear is pomposity. I never write anything I wouldn't comfortably say in conversation, and I have a long mental list of those verbal mountebanks. "Quotidian." I just don't think of myself as going about my quotidian chores. "Scudding." Words that are only used in poetry should stay there; I've never heard anyone talk about clouds scudding across the sky. "The human condition." Isn't that what we used to call life — men and women and children contending with the Job-like trials of being alive? We're all stuck with the human condition. "Postmodern." I'll buy it as a scholarly term defining a specific period in art and architecture. But how about the postmodern sensibility that everyone except me seems to have? If "postmodern" follows "modern," doesn't it become the new modern? Or is there no more modern?
That's my existential dilemma of the day. Whatever that means.