How do you like to be treated when you’re confronted with a new, big word?
Do you want the speaker or writer to go ahead and define it without your needing to ask? That is, do you want it assumed that you need it defined?
Or would you rather have it assumed that you know what’s going on around you and that you know the word, too.
I love words and I am quite pleased with the big ones. I’ve been reading the dictionary since I was seven. It never lets me down.
Today I have on my desk the most wonderful resource ever: The Writer’s Digest Flip Dictionary, Writer’s Digest Books, copyright 2000 by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It lets you look up the definition of a word to find the word you need. It lists various alternate words for the one you think of using. It lists 80 types of fruit. If you need to know what to call the front of building you look up “front of building”(p. 268)and learn you have the choice of façade or frontispiece.
Here’s the issue. I wanted to describe someone as “aunt like” but didn’t know the word. Given that we have “avuncular” I knew there had to be the female equivalent. I looked up aunt in the Flip Dictionary and found “amitular” and used it.
We hear the male side of the language all the time: avuncular, virile, etc. But the distaff side? Not so much. Few people have in the normal course have heard amitular and how many of us know the female equivalent of virility is muliebrity? As an aside to my distaff readers, if you’re ever called mulish I say smile and say thanks.
The only exception I can think of to male-focused language is cattle are collectively and rightly called cows although it does specifically refer to the female.
Anyway, back to my point. My reader didn’t know the word so had to ask. That’s fine. But it’s made me wonder how to approach the use of unfamiliar words. Most of the time I’d rather let it be assumed I know and let me ask if I don’t.
How about you?