So how many times is too many times to employ any given word within a single book? Obviously it’s a matter of taste, and any boundary would have to be arbitrary—but I think it’s safe to estimate that once you’ve used the word, say, fury or furious over 35 times in your novel, some sort of invisible line has been crossed.
I would also venture that there are some words that probably shouldn’t be used even more than once. I remember the first time I came across the word fecund in one of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set policiers. Not knowing it, I looked it up (“producing or capable of producing offspring, fruit, vegetation, etc.”) and enjoyed having learned a nifty new word. But when I encountered it again later in the same book, the effect was more jarring than enjoyable—the second time around, what had seemed originally a bit of pleasurably colorful vocabulary now more resembled a pet flourish drawn from a shallow bag of tricks.*
But perhaps I was just being oversensitive to the fact that I hadn’t originally known what fecund meant—many, I am sure, would say it’s not an overly conspicuous word, nothing whose repeated use should be forbidden. Still, surely there are some “inkhorners” (as Nicholson Baker would call them) whose effect is so clangorous as to invite a check on their proliferation—ratiocination, for example, strikes me as a good candidate for the “one per book” rule. Or maybe even a more lenient maximum, like two or possibly three ratiocinations total…but certainly, one would hope, somewhere south of five? (As Marge Simpson says to Homer after he drunkenly embarrasses her at a party: “You didn’t just cross that line, you threw up on it.”)
“Henry…given to instinctive and violent action rather than thinking, ratiocination”; “the aunt must have had no doubts about Father…though she was probably past all ratiocination by then”; “he…added further, out of some amazed and fumbling ratiocination of inertia”; “the fragile pandora’s box…filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons”; “that best of ratiocination which after all was a good deal like Sutpen’s morality”—okay, to be fair, Absalom, Absalom! has only four ratiocinations, with the fifth occasion coming in the form of an unratiocinative, but who’s counting? (Oh, right: me.)
Effluvium is another look at me! look at me! sort of word that you would think might benefit from frugal application—but I guess I hadn’t realized, until I read Absalom!, just how many different types of effluvia there are: “tangible effluvium,” “secret effluvium,” “unmistakable effluvium,” and even “presbyterian effluvium,” as was mentioned in a previous entry. The memory of one demonic departed character is evoked so vividly as to be almost ghost-like, “itself circumambient and enclosed in its effluvium of hell.” (And, no, this is not the book’s only instance of the word circumambient.)
Other such sore thumbs include brigandage, cherubic, shibboleth, and substanceless, each of which notches three separate exhibitionist appearances apiece in the book’s pages—how could words that so insistently call attention to themselves have escaped the notice (and red pen) of an editor? It defies ratiocination.
*Nicholson Baker, in his John Updike appreciation U and I, captures perfectly the anxiety from a writer’s perspective of being so labeled: “I looked askance at ‘florilegia’ and ‘plenipotentiary’ because I felt a needle jump in my déjà vu-meter that might indicate that I’d used them both before, and I didn’t like the idea of people (i.e., Updike) thinking, ‘Florilegia again? It wasn’t that great the first time! He’s pretending his vocabulary is a touch-me-anywhere-and-I’ll-secrete-a-mot-juste kind of thing, when it turns out to be this cribbed little circle of favored freaks that he uses over and over hoping nobody will notice!’”
(I also would like to add that I am a big fan of James Lee Burke—although his work does contain a lot of fecundity.)