Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: My Five Favorite Words

I love language (duh) and love noticing the frequency is which words and phrases each person uses. Whether we realize it or not we all have a speech pattern unique to us. I’m sure we all have favorite words which when we hear them makes us smile. Below are my five of my favorite words and why I love them.

Asinine: This adjective describes something as silly or stupid. I first heard this word from my spouse several years ago. No, he didn’t use it to describe me rather he used it to describe a person he knew. Having never heard this glorious word, which sounded so much like ass or asshole, I asked what it meant. I love using this word because it’s an insult flavored with a hint of intelligence. This pleases me as I sound smart, yet a bit crude all at the same time.

Paprika: I love spicy food and this is a spice I frequently use. Not only do I have the regular paprika, mild and a bit sweet, but I also have the privilege of possessing a bag of very hot Hungarian paprika given to me by one of my brother-in-laws. The spice itself is a wonderful flavor and such an easy way to add color to a dish. Besides perking up a dish, it’s difficult to feel blue saying “paprika”. These three syllables roll happily off my tongue and forces me to smile. Honestly, try it. You’ll feel better.

Puppy: Every human being on the planet knows what a puppy is. Most of us melt a little whenever we see a baby animal and with dogs it’s those big eyes and klutzy, happy way they move about. Just writing, typing, and saying the word puppy brings me joy. The lovely triplicate p sound. The way it pops off the tongue. The instant image of dozens of puppies playing with each other, tumbling over their own underdeveloped limbs, their juvenile barks, wagging tails, peeing on your floor. You get the idea. One can feel a puppy’s tongue licking their face and a cold, wet nose on the skin when you see the word puppy.

Cucumber: Cucumbers are one of my favorite vegetables. They are light, slightly sweet, cool, refreshing, and go great in sandwiches, salads, and pasta. It’s fun to say and write because the coo sound in the first syllable isn’t heard frequently. Adding one letter modifies the sound significantly. Like eating the vegetable, it has a calming effect on me.

Chocolate: It’s obvious by now I love my food words. Chocolate is no exception. When you say the word chocolate it just sounds so decadent, a bit exotic (thank you South America), and comforting. Chocolate is used to celebrate both the good and the bad. Gotta a birthday? Let’s have some chocolate! Got dumped? Let’s have some chocolate! Made it through another day? Let’s have some chocolate! The food itself is versatile; it can be eaten on its own, paired with other sweet flavors, or even combined with savory flavors. It can be baked, drunk, curled, melted, tempered, grated, made into a powder or paste, and of course, poured into candy bar format. Like some of the other words on this list, the combination of sounds makes me smile.

 

Language is such a curious thing. I’m amazed at the number of languages in existence. In awe of how it constantly evolves with new words and words which fall out of favor. What our favorite words are, I believe, adds another layer to our personalities. Are we serious or silly? Are we sophisticated or down-to-earth? Are we book smart of street smart? In looking over my own list it’s clear I like food, animals, and being snarky though with a smidge of intelligence. Pretty accurate insight into who I am.

Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Is Prose Getting Dumber?

One thing I’ve noticed whenever I jump from reading a book written long ago to a novel written in modern times is how dramatically different the prose is. At times when I read something from the 1800s or early 1900s it can be torturous. The now archaic words. The complex sentence structure with multiple semi-colons. Words which have changed meaning. Pages upon pages of exposition. It’s hard to ignore the stark contrast with today’s novels with it’s sparser language, punchier dialogue, and simpler sentence structure.

Frequently I’ve asked myself “Have novels gotten ‘dumber’?” I know language is constantly changing. New words enter the lexicon; others fade away from disuse or even change meaning. This evolution of language is what makes it beautiful. With the proliferation of authors, literacy, and technology which makes access to writing and reading literature easier, of course the written word has been affected.

But has the change been too drastic? Have books become “dumber”? Are books today easier to read? If so, is this a negative? These questions tie into the readability of a story. Readability is the concept in which some piece of writing is judged on how easy it is for a reader to comprehend. Several tests exists which determine a piece’s readability based upon factors such as number of words in a sentence, number of syllables, number of sentences, and content.

The two most well-known are the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. Each is based upon a formula which looks at total words, total sentences, and total syllables. Depending upon the test, the results yield either a corresponding grade level, or ease of readability for the average reader. Readability, be it an essay, fiction, non-fiction book, or anything else, is so important many word processing programs come with a function which will tell the author how readable the piece is.

With these formulas and others, we can now examine the readability of books through the centuries and begin to answer, “Are books getting dumber?” Though not attempting to answer this question, a fascinating article by Shane Snow nevertheless can possibly help. In the article, he charts the readability of various authors as well as famous novels regardless of time period. What’s most striking about Snow’s article is how many famous writes, regardless of genre, don’t write about a 9th grade level. This doesn’t mean the content is necessarily appropriate for a 9th grader rather it means if a person has at least a 9th grade education they should be able to comprehend the story.

Armed with this information I did a little digging into the readability of well-known books from the classics to more contemporary novels. Using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test (this measures complexity of language and not content or appropriateness), I discovered the following:

Frankenstein = 9.6

Fifty Shades of Grey = 3.2

Sherlock Holmes = 6.1 (average)

Harry Potter series = ranges from 5th grade to 8th grade

Keep in mind this is an incredibly small sample so to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion requires more data. But looking at this, along with Snow’s article, leads me to determine that maybe prose hasn’t gotten dumber over the years. Yes, novels and other types of writing have gotten easier to read, which is not the same thing as the story themselves being dumber. The content of books today are just as complex, perhaps even more so, than in years past. For example, Jane Austen books aren’t particularly difficult to understand content wise. What provides the challenge for modern readers is the writing style.

I was surprised to come to this conclusion. Before I did research for this post, my automatic answer would be “Yes, books have gotten dumber over the years.” Like Snow, I equated complexity of language with being more intellectual and therefore “better”. Yet when I really think about the modern books I read versus the “classics”, this is not true. A more simplified prose does not mean a story lacks symbolism, character development, or a complex plot structure. Conversely, a novel written in sophisticated prose doesn’t mean it can’t suffer from shallow characters or an overly simple plot.

For fun, I ran the readability statistics on my finished stories and the results were interesting. On the Flesch Reading Ease scale I average in the 80s. On the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level my work corresponds to a 4th grade reading level. Of course, this doesn’t mean any of these pieces should be read by a 4th grader, I don’t write children’s stories, just the reading comprehension level is at the 4th grade. I was surprised at these results. It is still stuck in my head in order for writing to be good, it needs to be written at a certain grade level, preferably college or above. But that is not the case. Just because my stories score in the 80s on the Flesch scale and 4th grade on the Flesch-Kincaid scale doesn’t mean the stories lack grown-up depth or appeal.

While today’s novels and non-fiction are written more for the everyday person, it’s wrong to equate it with being dumb. What makes a book smart or dumb isn’t what appears in black and white on the page. It’s the content, rather than style, and what we the reader take out of the story which determines if a book is smart or dumb. We must be willing to dig below the surface, or not, to find the meaning. Clearly many of today’s books, while more direct and simple, can stand beside books written centuries before and should not be discounted as lacking intelligence.