I admit it: I broke up with my first girlfriend because she confused “your” with “you’re,” even after I pointed it out. One of our last exchanges, a vitriolic lobbing of emails with subject lines like “Happy now?” and “FUCK YOU,” included a line from her that seemed to indicate that I am in possession of a crazy bitch. My dog is not crazy. Not using contractions properly is crazy.
Among the things that I’m most proud of are the fact that I’ve had my nipples pierced twice, I’ve been sober for a year, I can throw a punch, and I have a large vocabulary. Fortunately the last one gets tested the most, though I will say that with St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon it’s hard not to reminisce about the glory days of drinking whiskey until I fell down or passed out. Erin go bragh is what the sound of dry heaves at 6AM sounds like.
We’ve encountered certain vocabulary issues during projects in the past: the need for a firm grip on youth vernacular for a snowboarding company, bro; the crash-course in business terms that we endured while writing technically sound,un-flowery copy for corporate success stories; finding eighteen different ways to say “paint.” We’ve slathered our synonyms all over all kinds of copy, constructing completely over-the-top text for a variety of quirky products, people, and partnerships, and in the process we’ve found the most bizarre ways to hock everything from vodka to oil paintings to interactive design. We’ve also held tight to the reins and learned how to write as though we were cold, unfeeling robots, or the sparkle in Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s eyes, for telephony companies and microchip manufacturers. All of this was done while combining our styles together like Voltron to form a uniform and cohesive voice.
But much like conversations with burned-out punk rockers, rambunctious children, society women, and Christian Bale, written words have to be tailored to your audience. Vocabularies need to be strengthened through vigorous exercise, literary calisthenics and listening comprehension. For me, it can be as simple as playing the super-awesome and benevolent FreeRice game for an hour, kicking Simon’s ass at Scrabble, or paging through the thesaurus as though it were the latest issue of Cosmo. I top it all off by clicking over to Urban Dictionary, or by watching For The Love Of Ray J, so I can communicate with high-school students in a way beyond yelling at them to stop texting in the middle of the crosswalk. Did you know that “fluffy bunny” is a term meaning a wannabe Wiccan?! Useful.
It’s hard not to feel weird or insulted when a client singles out a word and tells you to find a different one. Why did that particular idiom spell out idiocy? For some, it’s that they’re afraid of alienating their customers, that, for whatever reason, certain units of language will either make the client fear that the customer will feel stupid, or like they’re browsing a company that employs only uppity drones. Of course, that’s the opposite of what we try to do. We feel that in order for copy to be solid, it can’t simply speak to the person putting the pen to our paychecks, it has to echo in the ears and eyes of their customers, without the client telling us how. Half of understanding a project is recognizing who will be receiving it, may they be ‘boarders, businessmen, or barbacks. If you can’t take your words that extra step and seduce the customer, then as a writer you’re not doing your job.
A lot of the difficulty in all of this goes back to self-perception. After years of studying words, we feel like we know the right ones to use. And after years of vocab drills, endless word mining through thesauri and dictionaries, circling the words we didn’t know in books, being blown away by etymology and Latin roots, we feel like, dammit, if we want to say ensconce, we should be able to say ensconce. But the client wants something else, something that they can’t describe. Fewer vowels perhaps, or maybe something less flashy, something less resembling a lighting fixture. We’ll never know. We have a natural tendency to try to impress, but we have to learn that sometimes the best way to put things is the simplest.
It’s hard not to feel like we’re just being obtuse and fighting a trend. After all, these days programs that combine sex with vocabulary are the only way to entice the public to learn new lexemes. The Oxford Dictionary is making way in its once-esteemed pages for words like hoody, celebutante, Yogalates, and crunk. Teachers are combating the nearly universal acceptance of micro-communication and shorthand text. Where once classroom assignments were designed to broaden a student’s horizon for a new topic altogether, these days teachers have to encourage kids to simply have complete thoughts, the kind with capital letters, punctuation marks, average vocabulary words, and basic grammar skills. It’s no wonder clients occasionally ask us to change a word like “subjugate” to “something easier to understand,” most of our clients are parents.
And it’s not as if I’m blameless. I still rely too heavily on the thesaurus, I’m clueless with commas, and my grammar skills are far below average. Simon might lose to me at Scrabble, but if I play against his mom I’m toast. Words like incorporate, complement, affect, and usage trip me up. That’s the beauty of there being two of us.
I have no solution to the word problem. Other than the aforementioned list of exercises I do as a personal Jane Fonda word workout, I text in 100%, annoyingly full sentences, with proper punctuation. I don’t care if it runs over one text, if it cuts off, if it makes my friend’s phone ring repeatedly while they’re in a meeting or in the middle of nookie. Language is a gift, one that we’re proud to have received, and we’re happy to share it while striving to get more. Yes, it’s a veritable sixty-nine of words at our keyboards. And, in case it wasn’t evident enough, another word for “euphemism” is “pretense.”
Drop me a line: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one. Thanks to everyone who donates, you’re unbelievable, in the EMF way.
Need words? We’ve got some.