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Big Words
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Last week I came across the following dialogue in a recent novel:

"Are there tunnels underneath this whole city?" Cleena asked. She followed Lourds.

"Yes," he answered. "And cisterns."

"What's a cistern?"

"A cistern catches and holds rainwater, maybe groundwater if it's available," Lourds replied. "The word comes from Latin - cisterna - and the root of that is cista, meaning box. Of course that came from the Greek as did most Latin. The original word was kiste, meaning basket."

"Container for water would have done nicely."

Have we reached the point where "cistern" qualifies as a big word that readers need to have explained to them? A needless bit of pretension when smaller words like "container for water" would have done nicely? Well, sure. Tunnels and cisterns underneath a city or tunnels and containers for water underneath a city. What's the difference?

I rather suspect that the author inserted the stupid question to allow himself to tell readers about the interesting etymology of "cistern." I only wish I could be sure.

Between us, Mary and I read a lot of books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is obvious that authors in those days imagined a readership with a far greater vocabulary than the readership many of today's authors seem to aim for.

Did the average reader over a century ago actually know that many more words than today's readers? I'd like to think not, that simplified language in books is just another example of our society's unfortunate tendency to pander to ignorance.

But who knows. I've been accused of using too many big words and, in fact, my writing vocabulary is small. I know it is small because there are many wonderful, useful words which I recognize as a reader but which simply do not spring to mind when I write.

I definitely need to broaden my writing vocabulary. Now there's an egregious plan.

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