Familiar Versus Unfamiliar Words by Dana Eckstein

Among the many choices we must make as writers is whether to serve up words our readers will digest without a thought or to broaden their palates with words that may be strange to them. In this guest post, Dana Eckstein from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory explores the tension between “efficiency” and “invention.”

When I was little, I entertained a regular argument with my father. He earned a living as a lawyer, well-coiffed with a gray suit, satin tie, and a gleaming leather briefcase in which he neatly stored all his legal briefs and paperwork. He would ask me when he came home for dinner if I had put away my briefcase.

The first time it ever happened I protested, “But I don’t have a briefcase!”

“Well,” he countered. “What do you keep your school books in?”

“My book bag!” I said brightly, thinking it was obvious.

“That’s the same thing as a briefcase,” he told me.

I still could not agree. “A briefcase is totally different. Kids carry book bags or backpacks.”

In the future, when he referred to my ‘briefcase,’ I would correct him.

“If you know what I mean, it doesn’t matter what I call it,” he insisted.

The first time he used the term, I didn’t get what he meant.  It’s true though that as he made the effort to bring it into my vocabulary, I didn’t have trouble understanding him anymore. Communication is the effort to share an idea, and he was getting his idea across.

My father had a choice – to use the word I already knew or to try to make me familiar with what he meant by another word. This type of decision comes up all the time with writing.

If the objective is to communicate a point clearly, the most obvious word choice is appropriate. In that case, the writer’s audience should be considered. Although my father’s career led him to think of ‘briefcase’ as a common word for a bag, it was certainly not the word to which a kindergartener would default.

If the objective is to find a new way to express an idea or make a comparison, the most obvious word is limiting. Great writing finds commonalities in unlike things. For example, the word ‘brilliant’ is used to describe someone who is smart, but brilliant does not mean clever. It literally means ‘shining.’ This everyday expression is a metaphor comparing the experience of viewing something bright to the experience of witnessing intelligence. The first time someone made this comparison, it may have seemed like a bit of a jump, but now we take it for granted. My father’s connection was that both kids and lawyers use book bags and briefcases to carry things.

Sometimes creating a new comparison takes risk. The audience might not always get it. But if you are able to draw the link, it creates a new method of expression and can help both the writer and audience understand an idea differently.

So which is better for writing? Using the word you know your audience will get or forging your own combination of words? It depends on your goals, dear writer. What do you hope to accomplish? Efficiency or invention?

Now that I’m grown up, I have graduated from a book bag so I don’t need to argue with my father about what to call where I keep my stuff. It’s obviously a purse.