This is like a really minor pet peeve of mine, something I’ve noticed just kind of peripherally for a while now. When I think about even trying to describe it, I feel crazy, because it’s so minor. I’m talking about when writers use the word “devour” in terms of reading. I just read some blog post somewhere, and the author was making the case that she’s an avid reader. And she said it, that she devours books.
And it just kind of sets me off, because, in my mind anyway, there’s so much going on in that choice of vocabulary. The first time I became aware of this weird figure of speech was while I was reading Team of Rivals, the Lincoln biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obviously I’m not going to go through it and check how many times exactly, but she wrote about Lincoln devouring books and newspapers often enough that it stood out in my memory.
Wow, I thought to myself, she really likes using that word to describe Lincoln’s voracious appetite for the written word. And that was it, I finished the book, eventually. It was a really big book. Definitely top five biggest books I’ve ever read in my life. Although, if you pressed me to name four other books in that top five list, I don’t think I’d be able to name anything. Maybe it’s the top one.
Maybe that’s one of my annoying figures of speech that I overuse, top five, top whatever. I’m aware of some of them. I hope that I’m somewhat conscious of phrases or words that I maybe rely on too heavily in my writing. I don’t know where any of it comes from, really, the words that I use, the way in which I speak or write.
Like here’s a little example. The other night I was watching an episode of Parks and Recreation on Netflix, and one of the characters used the word “innocuous.” And for some reason it popped in my head, it stood out amongst all the other dialogue. In the sentence that the word was spoken, I was able to kind of piece together through context what it meant. But I thought about it a little more. Did I know what the word innocuous meant before I’d seen the show?
I have no idea. I can’t think of any previous instances in which I’d used or heard or read the word innocuous. And since then, I keep finding myself wanting to slip it into conversation, or writing. The thing is, I’m not even sure I know how to use it, really. I could look it up, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’m just going to be all about innocuous, like look at this big word I’m using, and I’ll get to the point where I’m using it too much.
I feel like a word like innocuous is probably best used maybe once a year. Anything more, well, I don’t know, it sounds weird. And that’s kind of the feeling that I get when I see somebody writing about how they devour books. I definitely noticed it being used more than once in that Lincoln book, and now I’m hyper conscious of it whenever I see it in the wild.
It’s too original to be used more than, I’d say, once in a lifetime. That’s it. If you’re a writer, you should only be allowed to use it once. Definitely not twice in the same book. And you know what? I take it back, it shouldn’t be used at all. And never in reference to your own reading habits, like that blog post I was talking about earlier. Because even if you’re only using it that one time, it’s like, OK, we get it, you read a lot of books. Congratulations.
Does this bother anybody else? Am I the only person in the world that gets all bent out of shape about trivial crap like this? Because I would never be able to talk about it in real life. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to anybody else. I’m not even sure that I’m doing a good job of articulating what I mean right now.
And I’m not trying to nitpick, because like I said, everybody’s got their own quirks and styles and traps that they fail to notice themselves continually falling into. And maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m seeing a trend or a pattern where there’s nothing there at all. Maybe it’s like innocuous. I notice a word for the first time and after that I find that I’m seeing it everywhere.
This happened a while back when I “discovered” the word zeitgeist in some newspaper article. I’d never seen it before, so I looked it up, I found out what it meant, and then I felt like I saw it being used in every other piece of writing I read. Was I going crazy? Were people all of the sudden using these novel words? Or was it simply the fact that I’d noticed it, and now I was more aware of their occasional use?
Like what other weird words are out there in use that have yet to make an appearance on my radar? When I’m reading a book, am I just glossing over the occasional word or phrase that doesn’t make sense to me? As long as I get the general context of a paragraph or a page, am I missing out on material, a word, a line, that I’m simply not aware that I’m unaware of?
I have no idea, and the more I try to think about it, I’m just getting dizzy, my chain of thought processes is starting to unravel. I don’t know how I got here based on writing about a pet peeve, that it annoys me when people use the word devour in the context of reading. But it does annoy me. It’s like a little verbal trick that’s, in my view anyway, beyond overused. It’s like fondue. The first time you have fondue, you’re like, wow, that’s pretty cool, really interesting. But after that, do you really want fondue again? No, once in a lifetime is enough. Both for devour and for fondue.