Sometimes when hubby reads my manuscript, his comments will include, “Is that a real word?” Now this is a well-educated man, but his focus is in science and the word in question isn’t part of that realm. When hit with such an inquiry, writers face a decision: Keep the word, or substitute it?
We don’t want to insult our readers by talking down to them, nor do we want to go over their heads. Striking that balance in between calls for some judgment and can be influenced by different factors.
Once upon a time in a writing course, we read two versions of one short story. The author had published it long ago in one magazine, and then many years later rewrote it (I think he also changed the title), and it was picked up by a different publication.
The characters of this piece were … well … ahem … white trash, and their son had been struck by a car. In the first story, the mother observed her child taken into the surgery room by “a table on wheels.” In the second version, the author used “gurney.”
I prefer the second version, but I can see why the writer, wishing to reflect the perspective of the characters, illustrated that the mother didn’t know what that contraption was called. So while this example may qualify as “six of one and half a dozen of another,” word choice can also be influenced by keeping your audience in mind.
Sci-fi readers won’t be fazed by statements like “I need to invert the polarity of the harmonics.” They might stop and scratch their heads, however, if someone’s alacrity is referred to (I once got talked out of using that word).
Of course, if the term is spot-on, you can employ the trick of using it in context and give the reader the benefit of being able to figure it out. “She used alacrity in confronting the problem” is less useful than “Her alacrity in getting the polarity inverted saved everyone on the ship.”
(Okay, not the best wording, but you get the point!)
Writers (and readers) love words, but some people are more like walking dictionaries than others. Every word must serve a purpose, and they can be used to both guide and misdirect. But if confusion enters the mix, that rose should go by another name.
P. S. In case you were wondering, alacrimonious is NOT a real word!