"His commitment to terroir," wrote Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post, "is deep and ardent." He was reviewing a book about wine.
Two long paragraphs on down, Yardley returned to "the treasured terroirs of France and Italy." In the next sentence he commended an author’s "admirable loyalty to terroir."
On that same Sunday two weeks ago, Michael Dirda was also contributing to the Post’s book pages. He was writing about the novels of Albert Camus. He recalled "The Stranger," about "an affectless young man." Dirda had just rediscovered the Camus canon: "His carnets were clearly distinguished additions to the great tradition of Montaigne’s essays …" Dirda remarked briefly upon the "pensees" of Pascal and the "bon mots" of Camus. Should everyone grasp them? Said Monsieur Dirda: "Mais, bien sur."
Yes, dear patient reader, we are off again on the conflicting obligations of a professional writer. In our business — the writing business — one obligation is to the audience we serve. Another is to ourselves and our often frustrating craft.
Definitions first: The noun "terroir" never made it to any of my six desk dictionaries nor even to the massive old Random House Unabridged. The noun does appear in the two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Yardley had used it precisely. Rooted in medieval Latin, terroir blossomed in 15th-century France. Terroir is "the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate; also, the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by this environment."
What about "affectless"? Oxford’s experts give it a brush-off. It means simply "without emotion." The gurus of Merriam-Webster are wordy gurus. An affect to them is "the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes." Yes. It is also "a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion."
Merriam-Webster and Random House never met a "carnet" (car-nay), but the others agree that a carnet is a kind of notebook. It can also mean a pass or permit that allows a foreigner to drive in Europe. Not to brag, but I knew a "carnet" from a rented Fiat in France 30 years ago. Craziest gearshift I ever met. Never mind. I stumbled over Dirda’s comments upon the carnets of Camus.
Very well. Two years of college French washed over me and left some residual seaweed behind. Thus I had a firm handle on "bon mots" and "mais, bien sur." But where does a writer draw a line? For you readers out there, what mots are bon?
This much is certain about resorting to obscure or foreign words: There is no better answer than "it depends" — and their deployment depends upon all sorts of things. What is a writer’s purpose? Samuel Johnson provided a famous answer: Only a blockhead, he told Boswell, ever writes except for money.
At the professional level this may be true, but there is a lot more to it. For whom are we writing or speaking? What’s our purpose? Dirda and Yardley were writing to inform, amuse and educate readers of The Washington Post’s Sunday book supplement. Who are these readers? How large is their vocabulary?
These are judgment calls. They lead to different strokes for different folks. As Mark Twain taught us long ago, we use one vocabulary in talking to a maiden aunt, another for the kindergarten nephew. All I’m suggesting is that writers and speakers err on the side of plain old comprehension. It’s sound advice. Vraiment!