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The seven ages of language

Stephen King
Stephen King

Don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary, says Stephen King in his book, Stephen King: On Writing. Your vocabulary will grow as you read, he adds. And then he says:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re a little ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”…

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

Write simply, let the words flow, don’t be stiff and laboured. That’s what King is saying. And he is right. You don’t want to pause and look up a word or read a sentence twice to get its meaning.

King offers sensible advice as a successful, middle-aged writer. (The book was published in the year 2000 when he was in his early 50s.)

But if we all wrote simply and never used a long word, think of the consequence. Language will shrivel. Hordes of words will die out.

Language will no doubt get easier, simpler, but there will be less variety of words. And if you are in love, you call your lover not just by her name but also “darling”, “angel”, “honey” and other terms of endearment. Sorry if I didn’t use the right word, but you get the notion.

Synonyms exist for a good reason. A job is not just a job. It can also be a calling, a vocation, a profession, an occupation, a livelihood, a project, a “grind” or just work. The word you use shows what you think of the job. These nuances – what we think of something – would be lost if we had fewer words to use.

King is right when he says we shouldn’t use “emolument” when we mean a “tip”, but that’s because an emolument isn’t  a tip.

And the only way to learn the difference is to know both words. That takes time. We know what a tip is before we come across the word “emolument”.

King says we shouldn’t use a long word when there’s a short one.

The seven ages

That overlooks the way we acquire language. It’s like the seven ages of man.


Remember Shakespeare’s seven ages of man?  (See below.)

It’s the same with language. Babies babble and the old ramble. In between, we pass through a lifetime of learning and unlearning.

I don’t remember everything taught at school, but there other things I have learnt since then.  A teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, each has his own jargon – special words and expressions used by a particular profession or group.

And let’s not forget the poets, the writers, the word lovers, the crossword devotees, the Scrabble enthusiasts who accumulate words for words’ sake.

I remember trying out new words, not always correctly. The teacher ’s red ink showed up when I misused “saturnalian” for “saturnine”.

If I followed Stephen King’s advice, I would never use either word – certainly not “saturnalian”.

I have not used the word recently, but would be sorry to see it go.

You want language to be richer, not poorer.

Can age affect our language?

The cricket writer and music critic Neville Cardus confessed in his memoirs his language lost its romantic effusions and became plainer as he grew older.

Of course, there are writers whose language showed no signs of ageing.  Updike in his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (published in 2008, a year before his death at 76), was as sensuous as ever.

But you tend to grow out of words you used as a teenager. When did I last say “groovy”?

Seven Ages of Man, Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII


All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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