Posted in Writing

The Logophile

logophileRecently, while trying to explain the myxolydian scale to one of my kids, I realized that all of the hobbies I’ve practiced over the years have a very rich lexicon—that is to say specialized words that have evolved, or been created, to describe something specific to that field. All the hobbies, that is, save one—writing.

When that thought first sprung to mind I nearly dismissed it. It’s patently ridiculous to think that a practice about writing wouldn’t develop it’s own insular tech-speak. But after thinking more about it, it makes perfect sense.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that over the years I’ve dabbled in some obscure hobbies—Archery, Fencing, Role-Playing, Printmaking, Paintball, Bagpipes, Heraldry and most recently, the Harmonica. And each of these has a long list of specialty vocabulary. Truth be told, it’s one of thing I like about some of these activities…

Archery — riser, cresting, draw, doinkers, fistmele, fletching, quiver, tiller, nock
Fencing — florentine, coup lance, epee, parry, florentine
Printmaking — intaglio, gravure, pochoir, restrike, vignette
Bagpipes — birl, cran, chanter, drone, grace notes, leumluath, piobaireachd, taorluath
Heraldry — abatement, cadency, clarion, escutcheon, jessant-de-lys, rampant, talbot (I could go on for close to a thousand words as classical heraldry uses Norman French)
Harmonica — ionian, myxolydian, dorian, aeolian, glissando, pentatonic, tremolo, riff, trill

The specialized language of is a function of both small societies, and society as a whole. Fencers aren’t overly concerned about being understood by hundreds of thousand of people, because there are only a few thousand people interested in it. So if someone comes up with a term that is less than obvious, it will only benefit those who take the time to learn it. As a side effect it also helps create a camaraderie among those in the group.

With writing however the reverse is in effect. Our sole purpose is to be read and to be understood. To create specialized language is self-defeating, for who will take the time to decipher a story in a language that makes them feel alienated. Also, writers have a natural aversion to creating new words for things when a word almost certainly already exists.

Certainly there are exceptions to this. Writing has a few words we use more often than others, or words that have meanings more specific to writers than to general readers. There are also a few authors who we revere for their ability to make up new words—Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, come to mind immediately.

What hobbies do you have (or have had through the years)? Do they have their own lingo?

The image at the top of the post was created with a free service called Wordle. With it you can create a similar picture using your website (or any text you choose) to create an image in a variety of different colors and styles.

Originally posted on where six writers talk about the trials and tribulations of their writing lives. And each Tuesday the soapbox belongs to me.

2 thoughts on “The Logophile

  1. Great post. I have indulged in in-speak within hobbies as diverse as role-playing, rock climbing, surfing and even astronomy (now there’s a geeky roll call if there ever was one!) Now, I know this is slightly off topic, but I applied your thinking here to the medical profession and its use of specialised language to maintain an air of mystique (and for some power) over those who are not privy to Latin, medico-legal gobbledygook. EG: Anterior for front, dyspnea for breathlessness! Esoteric language when used in hobbies is indeed endearing – but when used to perpetuate in-group authority is suspect. Anyway, thanks for letting me rant … and for the record just what the Bennny Hill is “myxolydian scale”?????


    1. Jason,

      Your right, the medical profession is one of many—MANY—professions that are guilty of the same thing.

      To answer your question—hopefully without getting too technical—the myxolydian mode is a way of playing the harmonica in what is also called second position or blues position. The most common harmonica is in the Key of C, first position would be to play around the C mostly by blowing notes. Myxolydian mode would be played my moving 5 notes lower and mostly by drawing notes. Not in sound but in technique it would roughly equivalent to playing the piano a half octave lower and using the black keys.

      That all seems so much more confusing that it was in my head.


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