Many thanks to our commenter Betty Ann Dillon, last week. She taught me a new word. This term is given by the OED Online in our spelling, as well as “aetiology,” a tip to its classical Latin origin, aetiologia, and before that, Greek.
Simply put, etiology is the “cause or reason for something.” A starting point, like the sign above. Our word might appear in medical works about the cause of a disease, or in philosophy as the study of causes. This term merits tagging both for style and legal writing. Why not say “origin”? The answer is “variety.” Our word adds sophistication (and can save you verbiage) when used with a knowing audience, raising the formal register of the sentence. Joseph Glaser advises this in Understanding Style, though it can be overdone.
As we consider how much is too much, we might wish to mull over the advice of Richard C. Wydick, whose book Plain English for Lawyers caught my eye recently. Wydick advises against too much Latin by attorneys, as well as “lawyerisms” such as “said term” instead of “that word,” since “Sometimes [lawyers] do it out of habit or haste; the old phrase is the one they learned in law school, and they have never taken time to question its use” (59).
Is this week’s word too much? As I teach my students, the answer depends upon one’s audience. Jargon and latinate terms can save time among the right people; for the wrong audience, they alienate. Over time, a speaker or writer develops a unique voice; that is something I cannot teach. I or other writing teachers can, however, impart lessons about style, audience, and purpose. Words like the one given help to keep us in the game. There’s nuance in every slightly different synonym.
Do you have a word or metaphor worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
Image “Starting Point,” courtesy of faoch at Flikr. Looks to be in Fort William, Scotland. I walked the Great Glen Way in 2014, so it’s near to my heart!
Wydick, Richard C. Plain English for Lawyers. 5th ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2005.