Mot Juste

On the exquisite and unsalutary pleasures of obscure word-chasing.

Thesaurus book open in front of animating red spiral.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by yogesh_more/iStock / Getty Images Plus.

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I credit David Foster Wallace with my obsession with words. When I first read Infinite Jest, I was taken with his use of comically difficult words like gibbous (“characterized by convexity”), diaphoretic (“relating to or causing sweat”), and what I consider one of the funniest, inguinal (“of or relating to the groin”).

These are not words anybody really needs. They don’t make language more accessible or vivid. Using them, however, can help writers who aren’t as skilled as David Foster Wallace feel smarter or more sophisticated than they are. This is exactly how I fell for them when I set out to prove my brilliance in my early 20s, and I would spend hours searching for the most correct word.

What do I mean by the most correct word?

For example, there are many ways to say I have good posture. I can simply say, “I have good posture.” I can say, “I sit at a 90-degree angle.” But I could also say, “I sit orthogonally.” All those sentences mean the same thing, but to my 22-year-old self, the last one was at once sexier, smarter, and to an extent worth the extra time I spent constructing it.

Instead of improving my writing, however, my search for obscure words became a huge time suck, and one that I later realized was also inhibiting my growth as a writer.

My writing process used to look something like this: Type, type, type. “Hmm, how do I say that this thing looks like glass, without saying ‘looks like glass?’ ” Go to dictionary website, search “glass,” scroll scroll scroll. “Aha! ‘Vitreous.’ Now I can say he has ‘vitreous eyes,’ or even better, that he ‘stares vitreously.’ Yes, yes. That’s the ticket … ” Type, type, type.

Searching for a single word in the dictionary every 15 minutes is no way to write. It’s horrible for concentration, flow, and any semblance of efficiency. (And my computer and phone already bombard me with enough distractions.) At its worst, what I’ve come to call word-chasing is self-indulgent web browsing. At the pinnacle of my word-chasing career, I sometimes even looked beyond the dictionary—a particularly destructive habit—Googled “adjectival form of XXXX” or “What is the adjective for XXXX?” and then combed through a dozen results that led me into some Wiki-like hole from which I’d emerge a half-hour later wondering what I was looking for in the first place.

I don’t deny there was a certain excitement to this writing style. I learned all sorts of unusual words (avuncular: “of or having to do with an uncle;” prandial: “relating to dinner or lunch;” nuttily: “done with the flavor or abundance of nuts”), and discovered one wonderful website with a list of hundreds of obscure adjectives all pertaining to animals. If you’re curious what the adjectival form of mouse or armadillo is, you’re in for a treat!

Also, I could use these adverbs and adjectives to identify or amplify unexpected associations that made the world feel alive and new. Suddenly, a breeze could move thalassicly. A wine could taste drupaceous. A loud burp could sound Genesitic. These word choices were not always sensible, but they were a way, especially when I was new to writing, to avoid dull clichés.

Sure, the case can be made that these words when used carefully and ingeniously by a writer like Wallace can bring joy and insight. Or that presenting people with unfamiliar words forces them to broaden their own vocabularies. But for me a dictionary quickly become a crutch for writing, and it’s never a welcome accessory for reading.

Whenever I shared my early work, the reader would either stop every few lines to ask for a word’s definition, or more commonly, skim the page. After playing this game enough times, I realized an overly pedantic vocabulary pushed readers away rather than pulled them in. The few who humored me and soldiered through reacted with a perfunctory “Hm, interesting.”

I recognize now that the thrill of all this wasn’t just the words. The posturing felt romantic—all suede elbow patches and Upper West Side dinner parties. But it was like a grand marriage proposal in an empty relationship. This time-munching habit didn’t push me to write more often or even well, though when I came out the other side, I was left with a more nuanced understanding of the importance of word choice.

Now when I’m stuck on a word, it’s because I want to convey my ideas in a straightforward manner. Sometimes these words may feel simple, but sometimes simple does it. I prize immediacy in writing, and that value change has allowed me to write with (slightly) fewer distractions and to focus on my writing’s overall impact, rather than the impact of each word.
The world of obscure adverbs and adjectives was fun while it lasted, but I don’t recommend it. Unless you don’t mind living troglodytically.