In early January 1999, an aide to the mayor of Washington D.C. used the word “niggardly” in reference to city funds while speaking with two employees. Ten days after this usage, the aide, David Howard, resigned. The term “niggardly” means “in a stingy manner,” appropriate for a budget, so how did the use of this word lead to his resignation? Context and audience conspired to create misinterpretations of Howard’s utterance: his immediate audience was offended because they thought he had said the N-word. Once those rumors began about racial animosity, especially in a city office already divided by racial tension, they were unstoppable.
Diction is an important skill and one that gets better with practice, but choosing the right word is only one step in the process of crafting the best writing. Unless you are only writing for yourself, you must get into other people’s minds and assess how they view the world. On the large scale, this would require writers to be both sociologists and psychologists; in practice, walking a few feet in other people’s shoes is easier today than it has ever been.
Several modern word tools can benefit writers, and I use all of these tools in my own writing. These tools include electronic dictionaries, Ngrams, and corpora. Although there are several high-quality paper-based dictionaries (I recommend the American Heritage Dictionary), the benefits of an electronic dictionary are sizeable. Most importantly, these dictionaries save time with easy searching. Even the dictionary on my computer allows me to easily switch between dictionary and thesaurus so that I can fully flesh out a word’s etymology (its word history) and its regular ambience (the kind of context it normally occurs in). With these qualities you can better discern how others will understand the word. Keep in mind that all modern dictionaries (and there are hundreds of them for different specialties) are surveys of usage. That distilled usage is what the writers need to understand to be fully conscious of their writing.
Ngrams are another tool for understanding how words are used and what they might mean for different audiences. The Ngram viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams) is a tool developed on Google Books that calculates and plots the frequency of words and phrases. There is a simple set of instructions (https://books.google.com/ngrams/info) that will allow you to search billions of words between 1800 and 2000. For any phrase or word comparison an author is deciding upon, the frequency and contexts for usage are quickly findable over the last 200 years.
If authors need a more in-depth and nuanced assessment of the words in question, then searchable corpora are the answer. A corpus (plural, corpora) is a body of writings. Searchable corpora have been parsed so that most words are tagged with part of speech markers to allow for highly specialized searches (e.g. what adjectives come before woman/man?). At BYU, the http://corpus.byu.edu/ website can connect authors to searches through hundreds of billions of words in American and British English as well as 45 billion words in Spanish. Perhaps the two most useful corpora for writers are the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). For example, COCA can be searched by genre: spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts, so, for example, researching authors can see that over the last century, the word “mauve” is most frequently used in fiction and magazines, but rarely comes up in speech or academic contexts. What writers do with such information is a rhetorical choice.
Consider the HBO miniseries Lewis and Clark, where modern writers needed to develop a script about the early 1800s but one which speaks to modern audiences. Pitfalls abound in such writing. If a word like “golden boy” sounds old fashioned to us, that might work for modern audiences, but it was not available until 1937, much too late for Lewis and Clark. If these former military men are going to curse on their dangerous cross-country expedition, should they sound more like Yosemite Sam or Deadpool? Cursing around 1800 sounded more like Yosemite Sam (“Tarnation!”) than any modern cursing, and the sexualized swearing of modern writing did not arise until the early 1900s. Such choices are artistically rhetorical choices where writers balance between historical accuracy and audience impact.
The interpretation of words changes over time, and those changes are outside of authors’ control. Consider the case of one of my English department colleague’s tale of a suspect phrase: In reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) the European heroine (who speaks English, French, and German) tells her American suitor that she will not marry him until she sees his big house in San Francisco, saying “I like you very well, but I’m not going to take a leap in the dark, and I’m not going to marry a pig in a poke.” My colleague and I were both surprised that Trollope would have a character use the phrase “pig in a poke.” For both of us, the phrase is rural and colloquial and certainly American. But a bit of research shows that its usage in the mid-1800s was higher in England than in the US:
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Kirk Hazen is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at WVU and winner of the 2014-2015 Benedum Distinguished Scholar Award in the Humanities. Hazen has been the founding director of the West Virginia Dialect Project since 1998, and he has been writing professionally since 1993. His most recent book is An Introduction to Language (Wiley 2015), and he can be found on Twitter @DrDialect.