A Contumacious Parvenu


Writers are told to avoid using complex words when simpler ones will suffice ie instead of describing a character as a contumacious parvenu, describe them as a rebellious upstart. This piece of writing wisdom is based on the idea that complex words make passages slow or difficult because they break reading pace and rhythm.

As a general rule, this is good advice. However, a writer should not forget that context is everything and sometimes complex words are necessary to get a message across. A character is defined by his/her speech patterns, and words assigned by the writer must be appropriate to the person, place, time and situation. While it is good to avoid long-windedness in your writing, what if that is one of the chief characteristics of your character?

I faced this problem when writing about my suffragette grandmother. Norah was a wordsmith who wrote propaganda for the causes she supported. Her love of language and erudition were apparent in her writing, and to do her justice it was necessary to do the same.

In another scenario, I saw the phrase ‘contumacious parvenu’ used in a scene in a TV drama. The setting was an exchange, in a packed class, between a law student and a lecturer, a serving Judge. It went roughly like this –

Student – “Have you reviewed the ruling in Bloggs vs Bloggs as promised last week?”
Judge – “I regret not having the time, I had 130 cases before me last week.
Student – “That is unsatisfactory. Could you not have had a junior member of your staff research it for you?”
Judge – “I could, but that person will be as overworked as me and probably a contumacious parvenu like yourself.”
Student – “What’s that?”
Judge – “Perhaps you’d like to research it and tell the class next week. I’m sure you have the time, given your light study regime.”

As you can see, complex words were appropriately used to highlight the arrogant ignorance of the student. As a writer, you are in charge of your creation. Take advice on how to write, but remember that the full range of language is at your disposal to use at your discretion as appropriate.

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