Two days ago, I was at work transcribing an interview one of the interviewees used the word “bespoke.” That was a word I haven’t heard in a while, and I just shared my thoughts on Facebook, “I think “bespoke” might be my favourite word of the day, today.” It’s a simple word that means something one would not associate with how it looks and sounds: it basically means something that is tailor-made to individual preference.
My friend Kevin Allison, who hosts a podcast and runs the live comedy show The Risk! Show, commented, “I tried to cut it from a recent RISK story because I didn’t know what it meant.” I asked if he could not have simply checked the dictionary and he said something that struck me: “If I don’t know what a damn word means, plenty of listeners won’t either!”
This forced me to think a lot about the role of those delivering informational content, be it via print or broadcast such as newspapers (print/online) or the radio. Is it our role to expand the vocabulary of those watching/reading/listening, or should we create a bespoke program easily digestible and understandable by readers?
I’ve always been impressed with the balance of hefty words and simple terms that the New York Time achieves, and constantly learn new words or remember old ones I’ve forgotten. English is a beautiful language, the bastard amalgamation of some many languages from continental Europe, that in its plenitude are niche, forgotten gems we should celebrate.
But in our consideration of the audience, especially here in America, we (content producers) amputate ourselves to fit the ready-to-serve boxes that the audience expects. As my journalism professor once said, “Why used ‘dollar words’ when a ‘fifty cent’ one suffices?” Maybe because sometimes there is beauty in the complexity contained within the brevity of “dollar words.” The best uses of difficult words are those placed supremely in a sentence where the context allows the readers to read and extract the meaning without having to stumble over it, and upon reflection on the use of the word, appreciates that that word is not run-of-the-mill. Where a “dollar word” is pivotal in the sentence, and the meaning known only to Webster-Merriam, that is untenable. We use many clues in context and morphology to help us understand words we don’t, harkening back to ye ol’ grade school days of “reading from context.” Morphemes like “un,” “mal,” “pro,” etc. contribute to the understanding of the word, even if the reader doesn’t know the word, and writers should take that into consideration when trying to achieve beauty with their words.
But ere we lose the readers in a mire of SAT vocabulary list, there is nothing more exhausting than having to refer to a dictionary every couple of sentences. I think content producers, in an ideal world, should challenge the limits of the audience’s knowledge every now and then, and achieve a balance between inspiration and information.