Recently I was explaining to someone endlessly complaining that she, “doth protest too much.” I was greeted with a blank stare. Obviously, I was using the wrong line with someone that doesn’t really know Shakespeare, and thus, the meaning was totally lost on her. Not her fault. I should have said, “If you bitch enough, we’ll think you’re guilty.”
Today, our language is limited. It’s limited because we cannot use a lot of phrases, terms and history to make our point more salient. When I ask my college seniors how many have heard of Richard Nixon and the line, “I’m not a crook,” I get no reaction. Again, not their fault. They only know Tricky Dick from the minimal amount of history they get in high school.
Today, as writers, we need to use analogies and metaphors that mass audiences can understand. For example, using the term “flash in the pan,” is meaningless to many. After all, how many would know this phrase refers to the flash powder contained in a tray for photography, well before Kodak came onto the scene? It would be more suitable to say, “Here today, gone tomorrow.” But even that smacks of ancient history. Now, let’s invoke pop culture. So, how about bringing in some Hollywood, too? “Disappears faster than Joan River’s wrinkles.” Well, maybe not.
My point is that our writing must be relevant to the audience(s) we are trying to reach. To use big, obscure words and outdated sayings will not impact our readers. Upon stumbling across an unfamiliar word or phrase, I would hope that a reader would get up and scurry to the dictionary to find out the true meaning. Oh, wait, I mean Wikipedia. But that’s simply asking too much in this instant-gratification world.
Rather, we must put sentences and stories in the reader’s terms. Whether we like it or not, the word-choice playing field has gotten a lot smaller.