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Something Else to Ponder | August 3, 2007

I just ran across the following on another blog post devoted to “classy” insults of days gone by:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” (William Faulkner, about Ernest Hemingway)

As most of you know, these writers, both Nobel laureates, had a decades-long rivalry and writing styles at opposite ends of the spectrum–Faulkner was abstruse* and florid, and Hemingway was direct and spare. I am a long-time devotee of the latter and a firm believer in simplicity. In fact, I think it’s a testament to Hemingway’s brilliance that he could write so powerfully with so few flourishes. So I put it to you, readers: Is Faulkner’s dig a true insult, or is it an unwitting compliment?

* I had originally written “obtuse,” but Will pointed out that that has more the connotation of stupid, which wasn’t my intent. I just meant that he seems to be deliberately difficult. And this isn’t to say I don’t like Faulkner–I’ve read four of his books and enjoyed them to a certain extent (not as much as I enjoy Hemingway’s books). I just think his remark was wrong.


Posted in Word Use


  1. I guess it depends on who the reader is and how large his/her vocabulary is.

    “Obtuse and florid”? Ouch! I probably prefer Faulkner to Hemingway, but that’s mostly because he’s less easily parodied.

    Or perhaps better.

    Comment by Hillary — August 3, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

  2. I don’t think it’s possible to say one is “better” than the other–they’re too different. I just prefer a more straightforward style; I’ve enjoyed Faulkner, but I ultimately lose patience with him. Personally, I think it’s a better mark of talent when an artist can craft something great out of very basic materials.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 3, 2007 @ 8:50 pm

  3. Faulkner’s way better. That said, I’ve never finished any of his novels, and I’ve finished several of Hemingway’s. But I see that as my shortcoming, not Faulkner’s.

    Comment by willenvelope — August 3, 2007 @ 9:11 pm

  4. Care to back that up?

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 3, 2007 @ 11:54 pm

  5. I see Faulkner as having both greater breadth (more different kinds of novels) and depth. Yes, sometimes he’s too obscure. But he’s not always. And there is a richness to his stuff that I don’t see in Hemingway (although I would never dismiss Hemingway as simplistic macho nonsense, the way some people do; his style has its point, and sometimes it results in things that are very good).

    Comment by Hillary — August 4, 2007 @ 11:25 pm

  6. I wasn’t aware of the Faulkner-Hemingway rivalry, though we made much of a supposed Hemingway-Fitzgerald rivalry. This insult reminds me of a few other tidbits:

    1. Capote’s well-known dig at Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
    2. A euphemism for stupid, thanks to Slate and WordCourt: “His head’s just for looks” (might be from Yiddish).
    3. Another Nobel Laureate, economist Paul Samuelson, would write criticisms entirely in words of a single syllable (at least a couple times, as cited by William Poundstone in “Fortune’s Formula”).

    Comment by Sendhil — August 11, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  7. Off topic, but I thought you might find this article on the demise of hypens interesting.

    Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on By Simon Rabinovitch
    2 hours, 8 minutes ago

    LONDON (Reuters) – About 16,000 words have succumbed to pressures of the Internet age and lost their hyphens in a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

    Bumble-bee is now bumblebee, ice-cream is ice cream and pot-belly is pot belly.

    And if you’ve got a problem, don’t be such a crybaby (formerly cry-baby).

    The hyphen has been squeezed as informal ways of communicating, honed in text messages and emails, spread on Web sites and seep into newspapers and books.

    “People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they’re not really sure what they are for,” said Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter OED, the sixth edition of which was published this week.

    Another factor in the hyphen’s demise is designers’ distaste for its ungainly horizontal bulk between words.

    “Printed writing is very much design-led these days in adverts and Web sites, and people feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography,” he said. “The hyphen is seen as messy looking and old-fashioned.”

    The team that compiled the Shorter OED, a two-volume tome despite its name, only committed the grammatical amputations after exhaustive research.

    “The whole process of changing the spelling of words in the dictionary is all based on our analysis of evidence of language, it’s not just what we think looks better,” Stevenson said.

    Researchers examined a corpus of more than 2 billion words, consisting of full sentences that appeared in newspapers, books, Web sites and blogs from 2000 onwards.

    For the most part, the dictionary dropped hyphens from compound nouns, which were unified in a single word (e.g. pigeonhole) or split into two (e.g. test tube).

    But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.

    “There are places where a hyphen is necessary,” Stevenson said. “Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity.”

    Twenty-odd people came to the party, he said. Or was it twenty odd people?

    Some of the 16,000 hyphenation changes in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition:

    Formerly hyphenated words split in two:

    fig leaf

    hobby horse

    ice cream

    pin money

    pot belly

    test tube

    water bed

    Formerly hyphenated words unified in one:










    Comment by bookwormbethie — September 21, 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  8. Man, it’s weird that any of those words were ever hyphenated. I’m not sure I have great rules for when things should and shouldn’t be, but those are all very logical in their current forms.

    Comment by Hillary — September 21, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  9. Ah yes, I just thought who would be happy about the un hypenated words: Scrabble players!

    Comment by bookwormbethie — September 26, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

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