Are you aware of the word controversy that swirls around us even as you read this?
Yes! There is word prejudice in the English-speaking, or more specifically, the English-writing world.
You may have seen the argument pitched as an admonition to use shorter words, or fewer syllables. To KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid. Latinate words are seen as fancy, frilly, and full of themselves. Is this the truth or prejudice? Should a writer use Latinate words? What the heck are Latinate words?
One of the books I've read recently, Theodore A. Rees Cheney's 'Getting the Words Right - 39 Ways To Improve Your Writing' explains the situation much more thoroughly then I am about to do. Only one of the reasons why I recommend his book. Highly. Latinate vs. Germanic words is only 1 of 39 subjects that he discusses.
For the word geeks and curious writers among you
Ok, the word controversy is, perhaps, a bit too dramatic for the subject but I had to get you to look didn't I?
The actual dull facts: a high percentage of words in the English language are either Latinate, of Latin-French heritage, or are Germanic, coming to us from Old English (aka Anglo-Saxon). To simplify, around 1066, Norman nobles, speakers of Latinate-derived French, invaded England where the peasants spoke a Germanic-derived English. As time went on, the languages merged into one, and we were left with two words for many objects and ideas. Are you surprised to know that the Latinate words are usually considered formal and more elegant, while the Germanic are considered plain and forthright?
There is a definite preference for words of Germanic origin in today's English fiction-writing world.
Latin-derived words are considered fancier, stuck up, and just plain harder to understand. The Germanic words are viewed as powerful, strait forward and more exciting. Germanic words, unsurprisingly, are usually shorter and only one or two syllables long. Latinate ones tend to be longer and two or more syllables. Exceptions do abound. See a list of comparative words at the bottom of this post. You may be using fancier words than you thought, or possibly less.
Those among us (me) who like Latinate polysyllabic words find them more beautiful, believe they roll off the tongue, and provide poetry to a piece. They are widely conceded as words that explain concepts - you see them, to a high degree, in medical, scientific and legal works. Many find Latinate words dull, dry and uninspiring.
You do see them in poetry. All those lovely syllables are unsurpassed in providing meter and hinting at abstract thought.
Of course, you see those Anglo-Saxons words popping up in poetry as well.
Those among us (me) who sneer at Germanic-based, monosyllabic words find them uglier, rude and lacking in poetry. But even I admit you gotta love 'em, anyway. They are often imitative of sounds - they snap, crackle and pop. They pow, whack, and crunch. I would say they are ' onomatopoeic' but I suspect that is a Latinate word. A fist flying through the air, and smashing into a face just can't be written as convincingly with Latinate words.
The debate in writing usually boils down to the verbs. You are supposed to be eliminating those adverbs, and reducing those adjectives to a trickle. As the playwright Aristophanes would say, sometimes you have "to call a fig a fig; to call a kneading trough a kneading trough" so you don't always have a choice with your nouns, but your verbs … You can rock'em, sock'em or elevate your readers with visions of elegance.
The geographical setting of your youth, and the level of your education can predispose you to one derivation over the other. According to the latest book I'm reading - 'The Midnight Disease' by Alice W. Flaherty, there are brain states that can predispose you to one or another, based on whether you like symbolism or onomatopoeic words and so on and so forth, etc.
Does the Latinate VS Germanic debate affect you as a writer? According to Susie Bright, author of 'How To Write a Dirty Story', her editor didn't object to any of her erotic passages but he tried to replace all of her verbs. In this case, he preferred Latinate while she preferred Anglo-Saxon. He may have felt he was making her subject classier.
At some point you will probably be called on your word choices by an editor or a critic. A beta may argue that you aren't using the right words. You may be told your work is too self-conscious or pretentious - too many Latinate words. You may be told your work is simplistic, that it has no depth - too many Germanic words. You should be aware of why you made the choices you did. Your word choices will influence your diction, which will influence your style and the tone of your work.
Very few readers know why they think a passage is more active, more exciting, or why they think it is lovely and thought-provoking, but most are culturally influenced to react a certain way to certain types of words. You are as culturally/geographically/educationally influenced as your readers but should overcome it as a writer, and carefully choose your words to suit the tone of your story.
The debate does sometimes dwindle down to the number of syllables. However, take as an example: dour vs. 'stern'. Guess which is Latinate and which is Germanic. Dour is certainly simple enough, but does everyone know what it means? On the other hand, dour and stern don't mean quite and exactly the same thing. Maybe the character in your story exemplifies dour, and stern just won't do.
Sometimes, there are no Germanic substitutes that say it right. Sometimes, a Latinate word would stop the action dead. (strangely dead, kill, slay are all from Old English. Huh.) Does that fight scene falter? Are you unable to get an idea across? Look at your word choices and you might find the problem there.
Your choice of Latinate or Germanic words throughout will affect the tone of your story. Are you writing action-oriented works, or thoughtful, literate reflections on the human condition? Are you writing a biting modern piece or an historical epic? Is your character a free soul or an academic?
Do you need to haunt the dictionary to see if every word is Latinate or Germanic? Hardly. Unless you are a word geek like me or share Susie Bright's editor.
KISS will take you far and may be enough. You may have a fine instinct that gives you the ability to use Latinate and Germanic words to best effect. You may never have to worry about the origin of a single word. But when your scene just isn't coming to life, examining your diction, by studying the derivation of your words, you might find the answer to your problem. When the readers don't seem to get it -- maybe you aren't writing the right type of words for the readers you have in mind.
Yep, something else to worry about besides adverbs and adjectives. In essence, the more seriously you write, the more seriously you take every single word that you put on the page.
And if you're a word geek you can use that as an excuse to spend hours looking at words.
This chart was taken from wikipedia. For more information on this subject and related subjects go Here.
back (n) -----dorsum (> dorsal)
belief -----creed or credence