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There Are No Ugly Words



Today’s guest is Mitchell James Kaplan [1] author of By Fire, By Water (Other Press) which has received numerous awards and accolades including the Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal for Historical Fiction, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction, an Eric Hoffer Award Honorable Mention in the General Fiction category, and the Adelina Della Pergola “Students’ Choice” Prize for the Italian edition (a cash award that involved a trip to Venice!).

[pullquote]I am passionate about all aspects of writing—research, language, sentence construction, characters, story. I strongly believe great writing flows from love of literature and having something important to say. It does not flow from following rules or fashion. My comments about the use of Germanic vs. Latinate words are representative of this overall conviction.[/pullquote]

By Fire, By Water was one of fifteen novels nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award in Historical Fiction and was selected as Book of the Year by “One Book, One Community” organizations in Philadelphia, Houston, Portland (OR), the State of Delaware, and Northern New Jersey. Writing in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Pamela Miller called By Fire, By Water “[a] remarkably learned and heartbreaking romantic novel.” In Ha’aretz, Matt Beynon Rees wrote that it “must take its place as one of the most important contemporary historical novels with a Jewish theme.” Tirdad Derakshani, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, called By Fire, By Water “a beautiful tapestry… Despite its epic sweep, [it] is also an intimate portrait of a remarkable individual.” Rege Behe, in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, called it “A grand novel.”

Fascinated with the history of religions, Mitchell James Kaplan is currently completing his second novel, set primarily in Rome and Judea during the birth of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. He writes book reviews for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is a graduate of Yale University, where he won the Paine Memorial Prize for Best Senior Essay submitted to the English Department. William Styron was his first mentor.

Connect with Mitchell on his blog [2], on Twitter [3], and on Facebook [4]. View a trailer of By Fire, By Water here [5].

There Are No Ugly Words

“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same.”

– Mark Twain


Writers should never believe anything anyone tells them about style or anything else. To be a good writer means to question everything, to look beyond appearances and fashions.

When we entered college, I and my fellow freshmen received a packet of guidelines for writing. One of these directives stated that we should use words with German roots in preference to words with Latin roots. Latinate language, we were told, was “ugly.”

Over the years I’ve come across similar advice many times, and as many attempts to justify it, the most brilliant being George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Most of these arguments fall into two categories: (1) Words with German roots tend to be shorter, more pithy, less abstract, or less pretentious than words with Latin roots. For example, compare “belly” to “abdomen,” “house” to “domicile,” or “meet” to “encounter.” (2) English is derived from Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, so English words with German roots are more authentic or purer than other English words.

Argument #1, it seems to me, is based on an oversimplification. It’s simply not true that all Latinate words are more complex or less “physical” or “visual” than their Germanic cousins. The above list, and similar lists, rely on the sleight-of-hand of picking and choosing words to compare. How complex are “album,” “animal,” “miser,” “fetus,” or “virus,” all of which are directly imported from Latin? Sixty percent of English word roots are Latinate, thanks in large measure to William the Conqueror (who made French, a Latinate language, the official tongue of the English court). Another twenty percent are of Greek origin (e.g., Twain’s “metropolis”), and only about twenty percent are Germanic.

Besides, there are times when a character (and don’t forget, a narrator is a character, too) may want to use a more complex or vague term. Who are we to tell our characters how to talk? The best writers channel their characters, without instructing them.

A word is not just a signifier attached to a meaning. A word is a bundle of sounds, connotations, and connections to other words. A word is a node in the vast web of a language. “Fetus” is not the same as “unborn baby,” as the users of both terms, on either side of the abortion debate, well know. And Mark Twain was surely aware that “city” and “metropolis” do not suggest identical urban landscapes. To deprive English of eighty percent of its words – that is, of its non-Germanic vocabulary – is to impoverish the language.

As for Argument #2, the purity argument, in my view it represents a form of linguistic xenophobia. One of the strengths of English is its ability to absorb words from any source and accommodate them within its Germanic grammatical and syntactic structures. Many of the greatest practitioners of written English have taken advantage of this openness and plasticity. During my first weeks in that same freshman year, I had to memorize the Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. My brilliant English professor, Richard Sewall, didn’t object to Chaucer’s use of “corages” for “hearts.” Nor did he mind when, a few months later, King Lear addressed his Fool saying, Thou, sapient sir, sit here. But had I used sapient in an essay, Professor Sewall would likely have circled it, with the suggestion I substitute “wise.”

Of course, we don’t live in the fourteenth or seventeenth century anymore. Notions about style have evolved or at least changed. And I am neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare. Very few if any writers today indulge in that kind of verbal openness and playfulness.


Because the belief that Latinate words are more complex than Germanic ones is widespread, the rejection of Latinate language goes hand-in-hand with the modern penchant for simplicity.

In the first part of the twentieth century, American Modernism pooh-poohed the linguistic flourishes and grandiloquence that it associated with Romantic writers. American Modernists eschewed complexity, avoiding the excessive use of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), complex sentence structures, and polysyllabic diction. Compare Hardy to Hemingway, or even Hawthorne to Cormac McCarthy, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

[pullquote]The problem with any school of style is that when its precepts are strictly enforced, a stifling uniformity results.[/pullquote]

Let me state the obvious: Hawthorne and Hardy were great writers. So were Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickens, Joyce, and others throughout the ages who are not generally considered “Romantics” but who embraced an aesthetic of linguistic exuberance. If some holier-than-thou preacher of Purity of Diction were to command any of these writers to avoid complex sentences or Latinisms, they would likely answer, like the Merchant in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors:

Fie on thee, wretch. ‘Tis pity that thou livest

To walk where any honest men resort.

Kaplan_By Fire By Water_cover copy [6]The problem with any school of style is that when its precepts are strictly enforced, a stifling uniformity results. Contemporary novelists who ignore the less-is-more fashion – all-over-the-place writers like Pynchon, Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and David Mitchell – are often hailed as geniuses, in part because they dare to do their own thing.

That isn’t to say that writers who strive for simplicity and elegance are inferior. Creativity thrives within the context of discipline. But willfully limiting one’s vocabulary and available sentence structures is not the only valid form of discipline.

Style – the ways in which a writer chooses which words to put together, and how – can be learned from books like Strunk & White and the New York Times Manual of Style, and it certainly is useful for beginning writers to master a variety of styles. But at some point, as the writer practices the art of tuning her senses – her ear, her powers of vision – a personal style develops, a set of rules written down nowhere that seems to come from the unconscious, from the stratosphere, or from somewhere else.

But don’t take my word for it. I’d much prefer you question what I’m saying.

Do you agree that even accepted authorities on literary style should be questioned? Do you feel that predominant views about style (such as “less is more”) can be too constraining? Are some words inherently ugly, or not?