Monday, November 23, 2015

Fancy Pants

The term fancy pants first appeared in 1843 in an ad in The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier. 

In a time when most pants were coarse, the soft twill trousers advertised for sale by auction house Williams & Prince were, indeed, fancy.

Style manuals discourage writers from putting on fancy pants. Never use a fancy word, when a plain one will do.

But, as pscyho-linguist Steven Pinker says in The Sense of Style, the rule is overstated: 

"It's certainly true that a lot of turgid prose is stuffed with polysyllabic Latinisms and flabby adjectives. And showing off with fancy words you barely understand can make you look pompous and occasionally ridiculous. 

"But a skilled writer can enliven and sometimes electrify her prose with the judicious insertion of a surprising word. According to studies of writing quality, a varied vocabulary and the use of unusual words are two of the features that distinguish sprightly prose from mush."

In a 1739 letter, Voltaire offered similar advice to the 24-year old writer Helvétius:

"Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word."
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