Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Extraneous syllabification is not benificient

Is this inverted purple cow an amphitheatre? I think not
Big words don't make you clever. We all know this. Nor do long sentences. But some of us just can't help ourselves.

There is a tendency among writers – and an even bigger one among broadcasters – to use longer, more technical-sounding words in an attempt to make the things they are describing more impressive. In doing so, they often choose a word with a similar but different meaning. Possibly the most common of these misused words is "epicentre".

In journalism and broadcasting, the word is usually used to mean, "centre, but in a really really centre-y sort of way that I can't describe cos I'm not very articulate". Problem is, it doesn't mean that.

I trust we all know what "centre" means. So what's an "epicentre"? Here's how the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines "epicentre":
The point on the Earth's surface directly above an earthquake or atomic explosion
You see, that's not the same as "centre". "Epi-" is the Greek word meaning "on" or "above" (as in epidermis, which is your skin). The epicentre isn't the centre: it's the accessible bit above the centre. It doesn't mean you can't use it figuratively – for instance, if the members of a secretive movement meet in a public place, then that could be an epicentre – but your figurative use has to be consistent with the actual meaning.

There are others. In a piece about the Edinburgh Fringe in today's Guardian, Andy Field refers to "Udderbelly's colossal purple cow-shaped amphitheatre". Again, here's how the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines "amphitheatre":
Udderbelly: Theatre? Yes. Amphitheatre? No
A circular or oval area of ground around which rows of seats are arranged on a steep slope, for watching plays, sports, etc. outside
I've been in the Udderbelly. It's a rectangular stage with straight seating on three sides and two corners. It's in a tent. Admittedly, it has raked seating, but that's the only way it resembles an amphitheatre. The original Greek theatre was a half-oval shape. An amphitheatre makes a complete oval resembling two theatres stuck together (the Greek "amphi" means "on both sides").

Not all theatres resemble the Greek model
Now, you can get away with talking about theatres that don't look like the Greek original because the word is now the generic term for all places where live performances take place (and, in America, movies). It is also used in the abstract, to describe any activity put on to impress (as when a friend described an unnecessary process for safe online shopping as "a piece of security theatre"). You can have the adjective "theatrical". Admittedly, you could also have the adjective "amphitheatrical", but only to describe something that physically resembles an amphitheatre (which, as I might have mentioned, the Udderbelly doesn't).

But why bother with such trifling matters as accuracy, when you can look so much cleverer saying amphitheatre instead of theatre? Except that you look like an idiot to anyone who knows about the subject. Andy Field, according to his Guardian biography, is "a freelance writer and theatre maker. He has worked for Culture Wars and Total Theatre magazine. He is a director of Forest Fringe", so he really should know better. 

This point was succinctly made in Newman and Mittelmark's How Not To Write A Novel
The short-term solution is to use a word you do know. That means a word you would comfortably use when talking to an overeducated and sarcastic friend who would not hesitate to make fun of you for misusing a word.
Did they have anyone in mind, I wonder?

Unfortunately, they later went on to say: "Sentences are exponentially more complicated than words," which shows that they have no idea what "exponentially" means.

Other than that, it's an excellent book that I'll recommend very highly to aspiring novelists. Just click on the link below to buy it. Yes, I get about five pence commission for every sale through this website, so if only about 20,000 of my 500 readers buy the book, it will just about pay for the time it took me to write this blog.

Moral: If you don't know what a word means, don't use it.



  1. My current bugbear is "aftermath" when the writer means "after". I momentarily picture a scene of devastation when I hear phrase such as "in the aftermath of the meeting".

    Though at least it's not Greek in origin - that we should be thankful for.

  2. Excellent post and point.

    My boyfriend once wrote a post in which he described me as his "erstwhile partner". After I'd stabbed him in the eye, it came to light that he'd thought it meant "esteemed". :-)

    (No, I didn't *really* stab him.)

  3. A chappie fellow of my acquaintance was the other day making a cake and, much to my amusement, set forth for the shops in search of desecrated coconut. I'm still not sure whether he understands quite why I was amused by this.

    Another, which is not quite the same thingywhat but still raises a slight smile, is when the word fantastic is used to describe something for when it is so I only can imagine faeries or sprites of some form dancing in the background.

    Another point entirely, but I have read that book and it is really rather good. Sorry, this comment is now becomming unnecessarily long. I shall away.

  4. Georgie, I was embarrassingly old before I spotted the link between 'fantastic' and 'fantasy', but the word seems to have taken on a life of its own. As for going on too long, three short paragraphs is fine.

    Clare, I think I'm right that the 'math' in 'aftermath' is a corruption of 'mowth', i.e. what has been mown during harvesting. Like you, I picture a scene of devastation. It's no co-incidence that Death uses a scythe.