Ernest Hemingway wrote, “It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg Address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of physics, of mathematics.”
Author Ben Blatt cites Hemingway’s words in the introduction to his book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve because they inspired a journey to find out if Hemingway truly practiced what he preached. He followed that up by checking Hemingway against other great writers and then against writers of fan-fiction.
Blatt went on to devise a computer program to combine the works of great and popular authors to discover the words they use “most often.” He wasn’t looking for the obvious ones like ‘the,’ ‘that’ and ‘then’ nor adjectives like ‘big’ and ‘fast.’ No, he wanted to find favorite words, or unusual words that authors used most.
The title of the book comes from Blatt’s discovery that Nabokov used the word ‘mauve’ 44 times more often than other writers. Nabokov described himself as having “colored hearing,” the technical term for this is synesthete, i.e. he related words and sounds to specific colors. Mauve may have been his favorite, but as Blatt’s program shows, Nabokov used colors at four times the rate of everybody else.
Not surprisingly, Blatt’s program identifies that an author’s most used words relate to their genre: Agatha Christie used inquest, alibi and frightful. J.R.R Tolkien’s were elves, wizards and goblin; Charles Dickens went with hearted, pinch and rejoined.
Then there are clichés: the title “most clichéd writer” goes to James Patterson who achieves 160 clichés per 100,000 words, far ahead of other writers. Patterson’s fave is “believe it or not.” E.L. James gives “words fail me” a good work out and Jane Austen used, or over-used, “with all my heart.”
Blatt even examines the use of exclamation marks. Say what? Exclamation marks, surely not! Alas, it’s true – Charles Dickens, Elmore Leonard, even Ernest Hemingway used exclamation marks, and James Joyce more than anyone else. That is, anyone else except for the writers of fan fiction who, as Blatt observes, “[write] for fun and without editors, [and] use exclamation marks at almost four times the rate of a novel that ends up on the New York Times bestseller list.”
Would knowing the specific words your favorite authors use, or over-use, make a difference to your enjoyment of their writing? For me, I’d have to say probably no. Though, I might just go back and re-read Lolita to see if mauve really is Nabokov’s favorite word.
YouTube Channel: Shmoop
Featured image via Vetwill
h/t The Guardian