Limit One per Customer, Two

I’ve mentioned before certain words in Absalom, Absalom! that seem “overused,” not in the sense of racking up disbelief-inviting tallies on the stat sheet (does curious really merit nearly 40 times at bat?), but in the sense that their being used even more than once feels excessive—words like brigandage, cherubic, circumambient, effluvium, ratiocination, shibboleth, and substanceless.  Words that make readers—I assume I am not alone in this boat?—say, “Hold on a second…didn’t I see ‘substanceless,’ like, 15 pages ago?”*

As I speculated then (so now who’s repeating himself?), I may just be parading my ignorance—maybe purlieu, for example, is more of an around-the-dinner-table kind of word than I realize.  But, still, I would think it incumbent upon any self-respecting editor to say to his or her client, “You know how you have ‘purlieu’ in Chapters 2, 3, and 4?  Maybe we could think about losing one or two of those, what do you say?”

Perhaps I am being too touchy about purlieu.  And maybe I shouldn’t be so ticklish about the book’s four total uses of miasma, either (as in “the shadowy miasmic region something like the bitter purlieus of Styx”).  But when it appears twice in one sentence?**  When that happens, you’ve got to figure that somebody’s red pen has run out of ink.

Outside of a science-fiction novel, sentient strikes me as a one-per-book word.  That is not an opinion shared by the author of Absalom, Absalom!, which features “sentient forces,” a “sentient victim,” one traumatized personage’s “sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory.”  (Is undreaming what happens while you’re unasleep?)  And speaking of un-words, there is also “the blind unsentient earth” (emphasis, I am ethically obliged to add, mine); the human body described in a similarly sightless metaphor as a “blind unsentient barrow of deluded clay and breath”; and—in some kind of bizarre agrarian instance of seeming mind-transference that does sound like it’s from a sci-fi novel—a farmer “stopped dead…the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands.”***

Just as sentient is maybe a 4 or 5 on the “Hey, check out this fancy word” meter and then adding the un- prefix bumps it up to a 7 or an 8, satiated does not in and of itself register all that high on the scale of lexical grandstanding—whereas the cumulative effect of satiated, satiations, satiety, insatiation, and insatiability definitely gets the needle twitching.  Ditto for the relatively anonymous volition, which only calls progressively more attention to itself as it is cycled through a series of variations—volition, volitional, volitionless, and—but of course—unvolition.

Sometimes it’s less a matter of frequency than density.  I don’t suppose it’s so terribly egregious within a single book to read “the granddaughter…asked querulously what it was” and then later “the granddaughter spoke querulously again” and then “they heard the granddaughter’s voice, fretful and querulous”—just not so good within the space of two pages (232-233).  And it’s bad enough that Absalom! could manage to contain the “lost cause’s unregenerate vanquished,” an “aura of unregeneration,” and a character “chivalrous for the instant even though still unregenerate”—but it contains them all in the first chapter!  I would say that it beggars belief for this sort of redundancy to occur with no editorial redress, but maybe none of this is for real and I’m just undreaming the whole thing.

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* “He seems to hover, shadowy, almost substanceless, a little behind and above” (page 74); “the beam filled with substanceless glitter of tinsel motes” (page 59).

** There is no way—within the limited purlieu of my own excerpting abilities, at least—to excise from the body of the original sentence the twin miasmas (or in this case, miasmals) at an appropriately abridged length while still maintaining their sense.  I offer it here in its entirety, then, although be warned—it just so happens to be among my personal nominees for the book’s very most opaque, aneurysm-inducing head-scratchers.  (Yes, I realize what sort of first-among-equals rarefied company that places it in and, no, it is not a contention I would make lightly.)  Were there any explanatory context that I thought could possibly lend assistance in negotiating its meaning, I assure you I would provide it.

Or perhaps it is no lack of courage either: not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward, tugs its tenuous prisoner arteries and veins and prisoning in its turn that spark, that dream which, as the globy and complete instant of its freedom mirrors and repeats (repeats? creates, reduces to a fragile evanescent iridescent sphere) all of space and time and massy earth, relicts the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death but only how to recreate, renew; and dies, is gone, vanished: nothing—but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth, from which the dreamer, waking, says not ‘Did I but dream?’ but rather says, indicts high heaven’s very self with: ‘Why did I wake since waking I shall never sleep again?’

*** For completeness’ sake: There is also, in Chapter 1, a from-beyond-the-grave essence that “seem[s] to possess sentience” and, in Chapter 3, an if-these-walls-could-talk house that is described “as though [it] actually possesses a sentience.”  Neither of which, of course, is even close to being as enticingly nutjob as “unsentient plow handles.”

Limit One per Customer

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.

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*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.)