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Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

Sesquipedalians and Other Obfuscations

April 02, 1999|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

This week People magazine sent readers scurrying to their dictionaries. In a story on Oscar fashions it used the word poitrine. The problem with poitrine (pronounced pwa-treen) is that nobody knows what it means.

Most of the time, writers have the good sense to limit themselves to language that communicates something to their readers. But every once in a while, the writer's positive desire to communicate is defeated by his or her demonic urge to show off.

I first became aware of this phenomenon in high school. Our exchange student from Germany was annoyed with me. I had committed some small crime against our burgeoning relationship and he called me a Xanthippe.

It was clear from the expression on his face that this was no compliment. But to determine the precise nature of the insult, I had to look the word up--no easy task. I soon bogged down in the Zs before turning in desperation to the Xs, as in Xerxes.

The point is that the word was meant to sting, but succeeded only in driving me off to discover that Xanthippe was the notoriously ill-tempered wife of Socrates, a fact not widely known in our high school or anywhere else, for that matter.

Had Dieter just called me a shrew, we might have gotten somewhere--a good fight, perhaps an even better reconciliation. But both the user and the target have to know what a word means before it can convey information or cause an emotion other than befuddlement or pique.

Because writers love words, they often know lots of them. In Anne Fadiman's delightful little book "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader," she devotes an entire chapter to "The Joy of Sesquipedalians," which, she points out, is a long word that means long words.

Her father, Clifton Fadiman, is the family champion at recalling the meaning of long and/or obscure words, in part, she writes, because he is 90 and knows Greek and Latin. Her brother is the family's second-best because, she argues, he "has the unparalleled advantage of owning no television set."

Of course, obscure words don't have to be polysyllabic. Years ago I used the word "wen" in a movie review. The editor who made me change it to "tumor" snarled, "You can't use any three-letter words I don't know."

He was right. Sort of.

Some words belong in crossword puzzles, not in newspapers, magazines or books.

The late Anthony Burgess was a wonderful writer, but he tumbled for obscure words like a drunk on skates.

Historian William Everdell is another gifted writer whose work is marred by the use of words familiar only to the six best-educated people on the planet. As I read his otherwise riveting book "The First Moderns," I jotted down dozens of words to look up later. A couple weren't even in my unabridged dictionary.

The best writers work hard to find words and phrases that pull people in, not shut them out.

Robert Crais, author of a fine series of novels featuring private investigator Elvis Cole, is one writer who eschews "eschew" because he knows more readers will understand "avoid."

"I don't know any big words," fibs Crais, who lives in Sherman Oaks and whose "L.A. Requiem" will be published by Doubleday in June.

" 'Paradigm' is a favorite word of mine, and that's about as complicated as it gets," he says. "I figure if someone has to pick up a dictionary, I've lost the game."

Lawrence Schiller also forgoes the joy of sesquipedalians in his work.

"I respect my limitations because I think my limitations are very similar to my readers'," says Schiller, who lives in Woodland Hills.

Obscure words are the enemy of flow, says Schiller, who is always thrilled when critics describe his books as page-turners.

"That's one of the things I struggle with," he says. "I don't want readers to stop. I want them to move."

Clearly, Schiller is doing something right. His book on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," has sold more than 150,000 copies since its publication six weeks ago.

Although it's safe to assume you won't encounter poitrine in a book by Crais or Schiller, you'll want to know what it means--it's a comely bust, like the one Minnie Driver revealed a good deal of in her Oscar dress.

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