SF writer Mike Flynn recently passed on to me this tidbit about that most basic building block of writing, words:
"The NY Times kept track of how many readers on-line clicked the "look up" feature on different words highlighted in the text. The winner was "sui generis," which was looked up 7645 times by readers."
This, along with another incident, got me ruminating about words: plain, fancy, contemporary, archaic, specific, general. The incident was my proof-reading some fiction for a friend and coming across mention of a "Zune." I said, "What's that? I don't know that word." He looked at me with wonder and said, "It's the equivalent of an iPod." Apparently this is common knowledge. But how common? If you use it in fiction, do you need to attach (for people like me) an explanatory phrase to "Zune"? To "farthingale"? To "auroch"? To "Maypo"? To "fluoxetine Hcl"? To "sui generis"?
There's no easy answer to this. What one reader will recognize, another will decipher from context, a third will be bounced out of the story by in order to find a dictionary, and yet another will take as a reason to abandon the piece completely. Too many generic terms and the story loses immediacy; too many highly specific references and the reader may not follow their import. Was a "farthingale," a kind of hoop worn under a skirt to hold it out to either side like matched shelves, high fashion-forward or old-fashioned in 1660 England? If my heroine wears one, will readers know what I'm implying about her sense of style?
In general, I'd rather err on the side of under-explaining rather than over-explaining. On the other hand, whole sections of Patrick O'Brien's sea novels, set during the Napoleonic wars, are opaque to me because I don't understand the jargon and, thus, what the characters are doing to their sailing ships, or why, or with what consequences.
I know what "sui generis" means. Also, now, 'Zune." And I know that by 1660 a farthingale was considered dowdy. But I still don't know if, in my YA fantasy, I need to explain what a "posset" is. I think I'll take a chance and let my readers derive it from context. Or possibly from Merriam-Webster.