A few weeks ago I wrote about the choice that writers face between using a word or phrase that perfectly describes something, but very few readers would understand, versus using a simpler, less sophisticated term, but that most readers would understand.
For the most part, I came down on the side of using the simpler word or phrase. After all, you can’t expect a reader to look up the meaning of a word every time they sit down to read something. And if they don’t understand what they are reading, what’s the point of using such a word.
Well this week I came across a couple terms that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Now normally I would have just tried to imply the meaning of such words from their context within the sentence, but since I had some free time, I decided to look up the meaning of the words.
I came across the first term while reading a story on the Huffington Post about the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton:
Despite the fact that the FBI found no criminal intent to leak classified information — the gravamen of the case — Comey expressed appropriate contempt for Clinton’s venality, carelessness and disregard for government processes. It just wasn’t illegal.
I tried to interpret the meaning of gravamen from its context as “the most important part”, but just to be on the safe side, I did a Google search, and here’s what I found:
Gravamen, a complaint or grievance, the ground of a legal action, and particularly the more serious part of a charge against an accused person. In legal terms, the essential element of a lawsuit.
So it seems like I was close enough. It also seems like it is a legal term, one that (I’m guessing) most people outside the legal profession are not familiar with. So why use it?
I came across the second unknown term while reading “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg, and here is the sentence that contained the term:
“It was as if the part of their brain where motivation lives, where élan vital is stored, had completely disappeared.”
I just took the phrase élan vital to be just another word for motivation, but I decided to look it up anyway, and here is what I found, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Élan vital was coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, in which he addresses the question of self-organisation and spontaneous morphogenesis of things in an increasingly complex manner. Elan vital was translated in the English edition as “vital impetus”, but is usually translated by his detractors as “vital force”.
After reading that, I was more confused than ever, until I got to the last two words, “vital force”.
I decided to look for another definition, and here is what I found at Merriam-Webster:
the vital force or impulse of life
So it seems as if “vital force” is another way of saying élan vital and one that is (at least to me) easier to understand. It also fits in perfectly with what Duhigg is talking about in his book when he uses the phrase, the strange cases of people becoming almost zombie-like in their behavior, since they had apparently lost their vital force, their drive.
Or put another way, they had lost their Joie de vivre. (If you don’t know what that means, you’re going to have to look it up.)
But after finding out the meaning of these two terms, I had a couple of questions.
First, where do people pick up such terms? Did they come across them in the same haphazard way that I did, and then couldn’t wait to use them in their writing?
Second, and I’m repeating myself, why are such words used? Yes, the author may believe that such words capture exactly what they are trying to say, but if most readers don’t understand the word, then why bother using it?
While the use of “fancy” words is not my gravamen against bad writing (that would probably be poor spelling), looking up the meanings of words is not my élan vital, so I would prefer if writers keep things simple.
If not, I’ll have to start using phrases like “eleemosynary” and “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis“.