Circumcalifragilisticexpialidocious

These days, I’m working with a “creative” writer; as in, he likes to make stuff up. He even makes up words, something a dictionary devotee like me has trouble imagining, much less condoning.

Fortunately, he makes up words because he loves to play with language. I can get along with anyone who enjoys that. When I jumped in his sandbox—a 50,000-word document I’d agreed to edit—with my pail and shovel, some fun conversations ensued. We especially enjoyed talking over his more challenging word choices. It turns out, some of these were challenging because he had invented them out of whole cloth.

One of his neologisms was “circumglobular,” as in, “Doves and pigeons are circumglobular in distribution.” When I pointed out that it’s not a word, he tried slipping it into the document’s glossary. Finally, I suggested “Doves and pigeons are found worldwide.”

“This certainly works, but makes a less interesting sentence. Still prefer circumglobular,” he responded. He’s aiming for prose that has a certain elegance and complexity to it. I respect his style, as I strive to do with anyone I edit. But editors read a text to help writers express themselves clearly. When it came to inventing new words, I had to decide whether to draw a line in the sand.

In deciding how to handle this, I thought about the book’s purpose. It is a how-to manual. Short, simple sentences are appropriate in such a text, which will not be read for its mellifluous prose. Also, the word “worldwide” means exactly what he intended “circumglobular” to mean. With a widely understood, five-cent word available, did we really need to mint a new dime?

Matters of style fascinate me. I respected that this writer found the replacement sentence “less interesting.” But I also respect Webster’s. “Worldwide” it is.

The best part of this exchange was not “being right” (if I was). It was simply having the conversation. I love talking with people who care about language. Such conversations are the best part of being an editor.

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