Sheila complains in a Star Lines post that:

Famous SF writers love tossing around obscure words.  The more obscure, the better, too; as if knowing a word no one has used since the 18th century or is only applicable if you’re translating a passage from a Dead Sea Scroll makes them Special.

The word that so upset her? Luddite. Now, there’s no shame in not knowing the word, but it’s not particularly uncommon, let alone “obscure”; I’ve known it as long as I can remember, and so have most of the people who commented on the entry (including Lynn, from whom I got the link). What particularly struck me was the idea of a writer complaining about the use of a word she didn’t know. Personally, I’m always grateful when I run across unknown words; the wordhoard can never be too full.

Update. Further discussion at Byzantium Shores (scroll down) and Reflections in d minor (which also has a post on big words in general).


  1. With all due respect, hat, you’re downright weird that way. The normal person is somewhere between you and Sheila in this respect. Almost certainly, in fact, the normal person is exactly where I am on this question.
    That said, Tristram Shandy is the greatest book in the world (unless you can suggest a better one) for the gratuitous use of rare words, many of which may well have been coined by Sterne himself and never used before or since. Since many of them are coined from Latin, the meaning is often obvious.

  2. I don’t know who this Sheila is, but anyone who can say ‘two chapters of that yawner Neuromancer were enough for me’ and calls William Gibson’s vocabulary obscure (wtf? maybe Gene Wolfe, R.A. Lafferty, Jack Vance, Lord Dunsany or Samuel R. Delany I could understand) is not someone whose opinions I’m going to pay a lot of attention to.
    ‘It’s also the attitude [using obscure words?] that is killing science fiction.’. Bosh.

  3. I’m almost always glad to meet new words. I’m sometimes peeved to meet new words if they are long unwieldy ones ostentatiously imported from a “classic” language for their prestige value, when there are perfectly good native words at hand for the same thing. What always delights me, though, is to meet a new short, native word for a simple thing. I just came across “Tobel,” for example, in German, meaning a glen or ravine — “eine kleine Schlucht.” What a wonderful word! I roll it in my mouth, and the fact that people have been using it for centuries to denote something so basic gives me an odd frisson of — what? solidarity? connection? As though I were touching one of humanity’s heartstrings, a living sinew leading back into the unguessable past. Which is why the first few weeks of studying a new language are always the most rewarding, for me — learning the words for wind, hand, sun, sky —

  4. Gravity’s Rainbow is salted with apt and securely embedded verbal obscurities. During my third read-through I kept a list, it went to a page or so. One day I sat down at the local library’s Big Dictionary and did most all of them. Then had fun juxtaposing and stuff.
    ‘Numinous recension’ came out of that.
    ‘Avizandum’ is one I got from an antique thesaurus that’s right now too deeply under the bed with other portable treasures for me to dig out and mention it by name.

  5. Another good book for strange words is Beckett’s “Murphy.” I find it somewhat laughable that someone who had written and published a few Science Fiction novels would not only NOT know the meaning of a fairly common term like Luddite, but also parade her ignorance in public. The word seemed to come out a lot with the Unabomber case a few years back.

  6. Dale: Well said.
    zizka: I’m perfectly willing to accept you as the average man (and I’m more than willing to confess to being “weird that way”), but you haven’t made clear where you stand on this question. I can’t make out whether you feel “luddite” is an appropriate word to use, or even whether you approve of Sterne’s use of obscure words (to say “Tristram Shandy is the greatest book in the world… for the gratuitous use of rare words” is not to say whether the gratuitous use of rare words is a Good Thing).
    msg: Thank you for avizandum; I checked my own favorite “antique thesaurus,” the OED, and found:
    || avizandum, avis- (ævI’zænd@m). Sc. Law. [gerund of med.L. aviza¯re, avisa¯re, to consider, advise.] Consideration. to take a case into or to avizandum, is for a judge to take it for private consideration outside the court.
    1861 Trayner Lat. Phr. in Sc. Law 33 A process is said to be at avizandum when the Judge after debate is considering it with a view to decision. 1884 Law Rep., Appeal IX. 307 After argument.. his Lordship made avizandum with the cause.
    Jonathan: That was my feeling as well.

  7. You subversive, you. That’s why you got banned from that loony’s comments. Language is power, though it seems there’s some people who just don’t get it. My wholehearted support, hat.

  8. AND now she’s banned me for telling her to get a dictionary and do some work! Cosas veredes, Sancho…

  9. Wow, and she called me “language hate” too! Cool! Thanks for alerting me to my banning. I’m going to go find some sackcloth and ashes.

  10. Well, my own position is actually tolerably close to yours, but as an average man I wouldn’t want to try to compete with you.

  11. Good Lord, she really is beating herself up into a frenzy! Not strange, really, taking into account what her idea of what a poet does is:
    “Even a mindless bureaucrat like you should see that I am an artiste, not a criminal.” She’d kept up the snotty attitude since I’d brought her in for booking, but she was sweating now. I was pretty sure that I’d arrested her before she could score her post-performance fix, and Connie was starting to feel the chill. “I create poetry with my voice and my body.”
    That was an interesting way to put it. “Masturbating in public, however, is still illegal, Ms. Di Loma.”
    “I was expressing an existential physical metaphor for achieving success through the shedding of societal inhibitions and the acquisition of sensual energy and sexual power.” She lifted two of her chins. “I was not masturbating.”

  12. I love learning new words, or even refreshing my memory as to the denotation of a word I think I know. Also, I remember knowing the word “luddite” in elementary school.
    That said, although I don’t read much popular fiction, it really irritates me when a writer obviously just took a peek in their thesaurus for their obscure word. That’s just silly showing off.
    To some tangents! If I haven’t posted before, this is an excellent website. It is definitely one of my daily stops. Also, has anyone else found the Franklin Electronic Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary a fantastically useful gadget? I really want the OED people to release an iPod of an electronic pocket dictionary…but I also want a pony. I still have to write the OED people about it. And making an OS X version of the OED. I really can’t imagine it being too difficult.
    I have the OED in the nice concise form, but I regularly have visions of how impressive (and truly useful) it would be to walk around with the OED in an iPod form factor!
    (With little keys of course!)

  13. The Shorter OED. Two blue volumes, paper, ink, stoic beauty. The best $120 I have ever spent in my life.
    We can leave the iPOD out of it.
    Call me a luddite, but I can’t promise to know what that word means.

  14. to erudite or luddite ? that feels Preety good that be?

  15. languagehat > S. L. Viehl.
    I know what a luddite is too, but then I was a history major once… and I also think _The Last Samurai_ is a great book (thanks for the heads up on that one, by the way!), so I suppose I’m not Sheila’s target audience.
    Anyways, I too am always happy to learn new words, and I wanted to thank you for pointing a few of em out to me!

  16. 117000 hits for Luddite on Google – not too shabby. It seems a perfectly ordinary word to me. But I do find that some writers can be a bit annoying with their high-falutin’ talk. I’m thinking of Stephen R. Donaldson here, with his crepitations and cynosures.

  17. Ha! I’ll be passing this one on to other (pro, as in selling their works to legit publishers) SF writers; it’ll be interesting to see what they say. Not surprising how tetchy she got, considering her reaction to a word you often see in relation to computers these days.

  18. Well, I take one thing back. She has a legit publisher, although that’s next to impossible to tell from her website. So far, 4 of 4 know the word.

  19. Wearily to bed candle in hand but lo, what’s this? Bro, Pynchon was on the Simpsons. Donaldson’s effulgence is never pompous, the one sin verbosity can’t recover from. High-falutin’s crepuscular moment in the long-shadowed eve has done come and went. There’s an equivalence there would be the point.
    Ms. Sheila equates words with hammers and screwdrivers, and fades from view.
    It’s wood we’ve grown to love, the grain and heft, its music in the beam and fit, its tones, under the saw and under the floor.
    Carpenters know about trees, good ones do, and the shape of rooms.

  20. As a Marxist technocrat, I mainly use the word “luddite” for deprecating.

  21. General Ludd’s Triumph
    [to the tune, “Poor Jack“]
    Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
    His feats I but little admire
    I will sing the Atchievements of General Ludd
    Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire
    Brave Ludd was to measures of violence unused
    Till his sufferings became so severe
    That at last to defend his own Interest he rous’d
    And for the great work did prepare

    Now by force unsubdued, and by threats undismay’d
    Death itself can’t his ardour repress
    The presence of Armies can’t make him afraid
    Nor impede his career of success
    Whilst the news of his conquests is spread far and near
    How his Enemies take the alarm
    His courage, his fortitude, strikes them with fear
    For they dread his Omnipotent Arm!

    The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
    At [the] honest man’s life or Estate
    His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
    And to those that old prices abate
    These Engines of mischief were sentenced to die
    By unanimous vote of the Trade
    And Ludd who can all opposition defy
    Was the grand Executioner made

    And when in the work of destruction employed
    He himself to no method confines
    By fire and by water he gets them destroyed
    For the Elements aid his designs
    Whether guarded by Soldiers along the Highway
    Or closely secured in the room
    He shivers them up both by night and by day
    And nothing can soften their doom

    He may censure great Ludd’s disrespect for the Laws
    Who ne’er for a moment reflects
    That foul Imposition alone was the cause
    Which produced these unhappy effects
    Let the haughty no longer the humble oppress
    Then shall Ludd sheath his conquering Sword
    His grievances instantly meet with redress
    Then peace will be quickly restored

    Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
    Nor e’er their assistance withdraw
    Till full fashioned work at the old fashioned price
    Is established by Custom and Law
    Then the Trade when this arduous contest is o’er
    Shall raise in full splendour its head
    And colting and cutting and squaring no more
    Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.

  22. I would consider ignorance of ‘luddite’ illiteracy. Turning again to the CyBeR-cOrPuS, a word with 112,000 google hits is not obscure.

  23. Man, she is really a case.

  24. To the character who here goes by the name msg: you have a fine measure of the thing, and a sly way with a phrase. Blogst thou?

  25. I agree. A shapely comment, msg. If you don’t blog, you should.

  26. okay I’m really mad. I didn’t know what this ‘obscure’ was she kept going on about. I thought it was some sort of medical term. I went and looked it up. It really meant something not well known. Hah, I thought, I like that it means what it is. There should be a word to describe the feeling I have about the word “obscure” actually being obscure.
    Anyway, Luddite seems to me to be a word of especial usefulness in the context of Sci-fi, given the genre’s interest with futurity.
    If it wasn’t a word they would have to make a word that was it. What do you call it when someone does that?

  27. Hmm…I meant the Compact OED. Not the concise. Oh well…and probably I should point out that I learned the word “Luddite” from the Dorling Kindersley Illustrated History of the World (very much directed toward children).

  28. Back in 1992 one E. Gary Gygax had a game published. A 400+ page game. Which included lots of obscure words. Folks accused him of making those words up. People also attacked him for using words they didn’t know. And for using words in non-standard ways.
    Then there was the time I used ‘actor’ in the sense of someone who takes action, who does something. I was accused of deliberately misusing the word to make myself look better than other folks.
    When did ignorance become something to defend?

  29. “When did ignorance become something to defend?”
    I don’t know, and that’s an elitist question.

  30. Personally, I find the word “elitist” elitist.

  31. [misdirected venom removed]

  32. (Er, I think bryan was not entirely serious there, judging by his previous remark)

  33. We usually spell this “YHBT YHL HAND”, of course.

  34. Alan: Baloney is right, bryan was being funny, as you would have realized had you read his earlier comments. I have taken the liberty of deleting your remarks; it’s something I don’t like doing, being a firm believer in free speech, but I think you’ll agree it’s warranted in this case. Next time you’re tempted to unleash the vitriol, remember this episode and think twice, OK?

  35. One, I deal in bile, not vitriol. Two, it didn’t come across as humorous.
    To me to deplore ignorance is not elitist. What I find elitist is the idea that people should be left in blissful ignorance when they can be better informed, and the experience made enjoyable.
    In other words, entice, don’t force. Most anybody will learn when the experience is a pleasant one.

  36. Mr The Unvitriolic BileDealer,
    No, “to deplore ignorance” is not elitist, but to deplore ignorance where there is none to deplore, to miss pointed jokiness, to flog the moribund horse long after the other members of the company have moved on, that bespeaks an unfortunate humorlessness.
    Gimme elitism anyday of the week.

  37. And just to clear the matter up: I was joking when I said “I find the word ‘elitist’ elitist.”

  38. I’m trying to be tolerant, but… As languagehat said, there’s no shame in not knowing a word. However, I’ve little time for those who react to that by getting ratty toward those who *do* know and use it, particularly when it isn’t even very uncommon. I’ve run into this attitude before, from redneck types who resent others’ knowledge and react by accusing them of snobbery, as that’s more comfortable than admitting their own limitation. But it’s amazing to encounter it in a well-published author, whose craft is supposed to be words. Interestingly, a skim of her website shows her work isn’t short on biological/medical terms – for instance, “tympanic”, “lappets”, “papillae”, “parietal”, “adrenadaptive”, etc – that could equally be accused of obscurity. I think that she’s fallen into the trap of assuming that her own local vocabulary defines the boundary of acceptable language.

  39. Sometimes only the right word says what you want to say. No other word fits. You’ll get people who’ll say, “But this word would’ve been better.” You’ll get others who’ll say, “I had to look that word up to learn what it means.” You’ll get others who’ll complain about the word you used, and suggest a variety of ‘better’words.” Then you’ll get still others who’ll complain about the word you used because they don’t like bigwords/new words/obscure words/words you made up/old words from dead languages/big-new-obscure-old words from dead languages you made up.
    So use words you’re comfortable with, because no matter how you phrase it somebody’s going to complain.
    (A note for Sheila: Yes, you do snore. Think about it.)

  40. Good lord. I am actually more astounded by her brutal trigger finger on the “banning” button she professes to love so much than by her illiteracy and her suspicious relationship with truth.
    In fact, it was the mere concept of her banning “language hate” that had me hotfooting it over to the discussion to see what monstrous invectives you had hurled at her.
    Languagehat, you troublemaker you. (How did you get back in the door to apologize? Why did you bother?)

  41. Heh heh. I just posted from a different computer. As to why I bothered, I don’t like to have people thinking ill of me for the wrong reason. If I choose to insult someone, that’s one thing, but if somebody takes something the wrong way, I try to clear it up. But I did enjoy the “language hate” sobriquet!

  42. I just took the trouble to read the rest of extracts on SLV’s website, and it really is a case of “Pot. Kettle. Black.” Apparently biomedical jargon and excruciating SF neologisms are OK with her, but not this reasonably common English word (as evidenced, for instance, by the four pages of matches, in a variety of contexts, found for the L-word at BBC News Online.

  43. dungbeatle says

    “risible” comes to mind from a good source

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