This is an essay I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. After every incident, I would sit down, write out a few sentences, but then erase them all, unable to properly vocalize my discontent. Each time however, I would find new words to describe the raw emotion and feeling. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when my good friend Rishi censured my praise of the use of the word “reprieve” when I was providing feedback on an essay of one of our mutual friends, insisting that it be replaced with the word “break,” because in his words, “why use a fancier word when a simpler one works?” Usually I am not provoked so easily, but the use of the word “fancy” was clearly meant to belittle. It carries a tacit accusation that we are in some ways supercilious, and use “elevated vocabulary” as an ostentatious display of our intellect. Well, Rishi, let me tell you why.
Here was the contentious sentence:
Meditation offers a reprieve from our busy thoughts and a macro lens from which to view our circumstances.
The word “reprieve” adds rich, nuanced subtext to the object of the sentence, “busy thoughts,” that is particularly apposite if the reader lives in the context of our western, capitalistic society. These “busy thoughts” are the metaphorical death sentence handed to us at the age of 18, as we take our first, clumsy steps into the world of adulthood. They are a punishment that forever shackles the ingenuous mind to a lifetime of worry over the quotidian responsibilities of our everyday life. They are the purgatory of endless work deadlines and office politics to which we are forever condemned. They are the hell of interpersonal relationship management and work-life balance juggling as we struggle to maintain career, family, and friends. They are the silent thoughts gnawing at the corner of a brain infected with imposter syndrome that causes it to believe it is talentless and worthless. They are the constant poundings in our head as we are inundated with social media updates that keep us constantly comparing the lowest points of our lives with the highest of others. They are the “keeping up with the joneses” mentality that causes us to constantly chase some mythical paragon of what we believe our lifestyle, our clothes, our possessions should look like to keep up with society’s protean definition of “cool”. That is what these “busy thoughts” become with help from the word “reprieve.” It is more than just some temporary nuisance from which we can recover given a half-hour’s relief or “break”.
In a larger sense, this specific instance of pressure to use simpler words is emblematic of shift in our culture and the English language. Rishi’s condemnation isn’t the first time I’ve been denigrated for using words uncommon in colloquial speech. I’ve been called out for using words such as “boondoggle,” “probity,” and “obstinate.” I would argue that although they aren’t exactly colloquial (although I have heard pundits on TV news programs such as the BBC and CBC use them), they aren’t overly esoteric either. I agree that obscure words that would give even just casual readers pause should be avoided, because they detract from the writing by distracting the reader and causing him to lose focus as he looks up definitions. But I resent the notion that we should reach for the lowest shelf words in an effort to make our writing transparent and accessible. Transparent and accessible writing is important, and it is particularly important for certain use-cases; safety instructions and legislation should be written in a manner that is easily understood. But writing is also an art form, and an author breathes life into this art by selectively choosing the words which convey the feeling he wants to instill into the audience. When one chooses vocabulary, they are making a tradeoff between accessibility and accuracy. Accuracy measured by what? By the intentions of the author. In so many cases, writing is used to reflect real-life, and to convey some sort of aphorism or moral. It is hard enough to reflect the nuances of real-life with existing English vocabulary without being further confined to words as boring as “amazing” or “sad” or “fast.”
So that’s why you should use “fancier” words, Rishi. To be true to oneself, and one’s art.