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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro


Merriam-Webster defines wordsmith as a person who works with words. Wordsmithing, the active verbal form, denotes the task of choosing and combining words, generally in written form. A good wordsmith is creative . . . but not over-creative. Meaning, vocabulary should be chosen wisely to suit the intended audience.

Take, for instance, the following sentence: “cGAS is a member of the evolutionarily ancient cGAS/DncV-like nucleotidyltransferase (CD-NTase) family of proteins that synthesize diverse cyclic oligonucleotide second messengers in response to invading pathogens.” (From an article in Current Biology, July 2022.) The choice of words is perfectly suitable for an audience of biological chemists, but not for John Q Public.

“Running in the summer is a sudorific exercise.” A sentence that could cause excess sweating.

“A law-book-thumping pettifogger slimed into the room with visions of dollar signs.” Fog-inducing vocabulary.

“Saponification does not interest me in the least.” I’d rather watch a soap opera.

“The leaves were coriaceous in texture, ranging from sessile to sub-petiolate.” For the botanically aware.

The four illustrations above are examples of bona fide words (sudorific, pettifogger, saponification, coriaceous) that should generally be used only with specific target audiences in mind, or with additional explanation in the case of rarely used vocabulary.

It is well and good to challenge readers with less common but useful words. I usually enjoy coming across an unfamiliar term that requires research, the result being an enrichment of my own lexis. But authors need to be prudent in this regard since it is easy to overdo it and alienate the reader.

So be bold . . . but not over-bold. Be adventurous . . . but not over-adventurous. Wordsmith joyfully . . . but don’t wordsmith it to death.

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