“What did you study in grad school?” I was recently, rather startlingly, asked. It’s been some time since I have spoken about my studies at Georgetown University (the above picture is the exact corner of campus I think about when asked about Georgetown — I walked down this corridor maybe a thousand times en route to class), or since anyone has cared to ask, since I’m nearly ten years out and wildly out of practice when it comes to speaking academese. I reached for my pat reply:
“High modernist poetry and poetics.”
“Poetics,” repeated my conversation mate. He looked over at me inquiringly. “Poetics?”
“Oh–” I interjected apologetically, suddenly feeling like an incorrigible snot, like that time I haughtily tossed around Ezra Pound’s name during a cocktail party . “Poetics meaning the strategy and art that goes into writing poetry. Sort of — the mechanics that poets use.” He nodded, turning his mouth into an upside down “u” as he seemed to mull it over for plausibility.
His reaction made me think for a minute about the necessity of using “poetics” in that sentence. Wouldn’t poetry have sufficed just as well, implicit as it was that, given my degree, I was studying more than just the words on a page? And what about the modifier “high”? Had I really needed to distinguish between flavors of modernism for the purpose of this polite conversation?
Yes, I ultimately decided. Yes, I had. I’d used technically correct, exacting language, and the gentleman across from me was bright, inquisitive, well-educated. I don’t think an orthopedic surgeon would have “dumbed down” her response to an analogous inquiry as to her medical chops by describing herself as “a body doctor,” and though the tenor of his query had been mildly reproachful, I ultimately denied any transgression on my end. On further thought, I also doubted whether I’d registered his tone correctly: had it been reproach or, possibly, curiosity? And if the latter, had I done him a small kindness in glossing the word for him on the spot? And if the former, had I redeemed myself regardless by proving that I had used the word knowingly, carefully?
What say you, chorus?
I’ve written recently on the weight of words — on the importance of taking care with language, of looking into the provenance of words, of observing the cultural and social norms and frictions around their exercise. And I’ve also written recently in defense of “the lowbrow,” staking an implicit anti-snob claim that might be at odds with my cleaving to the jargon of literary study above. And, many months back, I wrote a little piece on “the way language can occasionally, in the subtlest but cruelest of ways, fence people in and out.”
Suffice to say that I have been hard at work in the project of thinking about language as not only a means for self-expression, but as a mirror for many of the cultural and social frictions of our times, and sometimes I discover I land in a different spot, looking at the expanse of language from a different mount, observing some new formation or distribution in its topography.
Today I feel strongly that I needn’t have shied away from using the mot juste, even if it might have caused temporary dissonance on the listener’s end, as I was using it without pretense and with an aim at specificity. I’ve just recently finished the page-turning non-fiction book Nemesis, on Jackie and Aristotle Onassis’s complex and salacious life together, and I felt that the author was occasionally affected in his diction, using European phrases like “cri de coeur” and “mariage blanc” and “vilet de pied” that, taken together, imply Peter Evans’ worldliness, his cultivation. I love French words, too, and will use them in my English writing — above, I used the phrase “mot juste” unblinkingly because it was the simplest, most direct conveyance — but I found myself lingering over his repeated applications from time to time: yes, the phrase mariage blanc was deployed perfectly in such-and-such case, but cri de coeur was used four or five times in the book, and I’m unconvinced that the phrase was additive to all but one or two of the occasions. Meanwhile, or on the other hand, there are words like jurisprudence and ecclesiastical, which have the feel of pretense but are in fact beautifully precise, a generosity to the reader. In short, I feel that there are distinctions to be made between ostentation and exactitude in writing — slender, delicate ones, for sure, but they abide.
Where do you land on this topic? Have you ever stared down the question of whether to swap a simpler word for a more technically correct one? What’s at stake? (And are there gender/age dynamics at play in these interactions, too?)
+This breezy dress has the look of a higher-end piece from The Reformation.
+Sorry for the refeature, but I can’t get over the drama of this little white blouse! Brides!!! Chop chop!
+This khaki linen peplum top has an understated Grace-Kelly-on-safari elegance that I can’t stop thinking about.
+A chic personalized gift for a lady in your life.
+On your mark? Get set? GO. This shirt will sell out in 1.2 seconds. So chic!
+Against many of your suggestions, I picked up this beach read (described to me as “a rom com in written form”) after finishing Nemesis because I wanted a palette cleanser before diving into this. It is rather prurient reading, but I do appreciate this: the book shuttles between the perspective of a woman and a man falling in love with one another and their tender and anxious concerns about how they are being perceived by one another ring true to me.
P.S. One of my favorite posts. I miss my grandfather when I read it, and it also leaves me optimistic for my future in writing.
P.P.P.S. A love letter to you.