One Less Word


By Elaine Viets

There are 250,000 English words. Maybe. Even the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t sure.
There is definitely one word I can do without. I hate it. So far, no one’s spoken it around me. But just reading it sets me off.
Here goes.
Bildungsroman is a highfalutin word that simply means “a coming of age novel.”
My chief beef against bildungsroman is that it sounds ugly. It looks like a Frankenword cobbled together from other unwanted words: – “bil,” which is way too close to a four-letter word that means “to owe money.” The second syllable is “dung,” or excrement.
The other problem is this word sounds ugly. Bildungsroman is not pronounced trippingly on the tongue. It sounds like someone threw a bag of garbage down a trash chute. You can hear it hitting the smelly metal walls as it bounces down to the Dumpster:
Bil (thud), dungs (slam), until it finally lands in a squishy heap of other trash with a splat and a flabby roman.
Bildungsroman first showed up in print in 1906, Webster says. That vintage word year brought us such beauties as banana split. (Can’t you just see one, heaped with whipped cream and slathered with chocolate syrup?)

And useful words like bonehead. (Add a picture of your brother-in-law or boss here.)
Seriously, bildungsroman has German roots. I’m told – okay, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true – that the “German word Bildung refers to forming and shaping, and the first Bildungsromane in 18th-century Germany focused on the hero’s self-formation. Modernists such as Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf adopted and reinvigorated the Bildungsroman form as a means of telling stories about longing and transition.”

Okay, I get it. Bildungsroman allows the worst sort of academic to sound important. But the word is so darn pompous.
I’m not prejudiced against all German words. English has borrowed some fine examples, include schadenfreude. That means “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” It’s how you feel when you see the snippy high school cheerleader who used to torment you now weighs 250 pounds and works at Walmart.
Bildungsroman has no business being used. Stick with coming of age, and let this word die a quiet death.
Okay, I showed you mine. Which words would you wipe out of the English language?


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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

29 thoughts on “One Less Word

  1. My mom’s family was German, and while we didn’t grow up speaking it exclusively in our house because my dad was American. The maternal side of the family spoke German at get-togethers, so I grew up hearing it, and decided to take it in college to find out what they were saying. So, Bildungsroman seems natural enough to me. German is chock full of cobbled-together words. My dad used to have fun making them up.

    • Same for my family, Terry. I’m also German American. My grandpa’s nickname for me was “haus maus” — house mouse — because I didn’t like to go outside if it was too hot or too cold.

  2. I totally agree on every count. (Though in English, I’d like to see “totally” flushed.) I speak German and Bildungsroman still confuses me. But I do love Shadenfreude—both the meaning and the sound. How do you feel about Doppelganger?

  3. I propose we return the word “pulchritude” to the Romans. Either pronouncing or hearing the word is grating, and in my mind it conjures images of disease rather than beauty. Fail!

  4. Just yesterday my wife and I were talking about how much we like Yiddish, which of course has roots in German vernacular. Maybe we should change Bildungsroman to Bubbeshmaltz.

  5. My gosh! I’d never heard that word and now I wish I never had. A word or words I dislike are au contraire. I love French but when this expression is thrown into an English conversation, it sounds contrived and yes, pompous.

    So… thanks for sharing and I promise I’ll NEVER say or write bildungsroman OMG, spell check knew the word. There’s no help for us.

  6. I hate the word fulsome.

    It used to mean only one thing: ingratiating, cloying, sacchrine. Bad connotation.
    But I guess because it has “ful” in it, implying “full” people started using it to mean abundant. Good connotation.

    Both definitions are now “accepted.” Which has rendered the word useless. Hate when this happens…

    Ditto the word “hellacious.” Can mean good or bad. Geez…what’s the point of even having it then?

    (Don’t know why I am so crabby today…must be your topic, Elaine. 🙂 )

    • Look what they’ve done with “bemused,” PJ, which is supposed to mean “to make confused” or “to distract.” Now it means “amused,” and it’s been rendered useless.
      Yours in grumpiness.

  7. Grump, grump. Then there’s “hilarious,” which used to mean knee-slapping funny, but is now used where a simple “bemusing” might suffice. I know, ouch!

  8. But if we begin to eliminate words simply because they’re ugly–or igly, my cousin used to say–then we might begin to drop entire phrases or clauses. My all-time hated word (it’s so ugly that I refuse to use it here because, well, it’s ugly) is useful on occasion to describe horrid things of no use or appeal to anyone or anything. I’d wish the first Martian settlers would take it with them and lose it somewhere between here and the Medusae Fossae Formation.

    So, my fear is, if we begin to drop entire phrases and clauses, someone might be tempted to suggest we drop “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” That, as I state flat-out, is not acceptable on the civilized side of the planet. (We could argue about which side, and which planet.) According to Wikipedia–I know, I know, but it IS Wikipedia–“was a non sequitur-ish phrase that found its way into Mad [magazine] on several occasions in the 1950s; this was dated British slang meaning “it’s madness to bribe a policeman with counterfeit money.” (The phrase originated in Margery Allingham’s mid-thirties detective novel, The Fashion in Shrouds).

    See? If we dropped that phrase, the planet (we can debate which one) might stop turning, the Grand Canyon might fill in, and people might stop gathering for pizza on Christmas Eve. (As to the latter, isn’t that the universal Yuletide practice?)

    So, I advocate no dropping of words, phrases or clauses. (Ready for it?) If we start dropping clauses, then it’s only time until someone decides we should drop Santa.

    • Ugly is in the eye of the holder, Jim. I like “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” I say the planet keeps turning and we rozzer on.

  9. Since I’m thinking of my WIP as a “mystery-cum-Bildungsroman,” I’m now in a quandary. Somehow “coming-of-age novel” doesn’t convey the same idea. Maybe that’s just because I put my own interpretation into “Bildungsroman,” since I’m not directly acquainted with the paradigms such as Goethe’s “Suffering of Young Werther” or a number of the later novels you mention. “Bildung” is one of those rich German words that don’t translate directly (like “Schadenfreude”). I admit that, even for a German word, it’s rather hard to pronounce.

  10. Proffer! The word may have a useful technical meaning in the legal world (does it? I’m no lawyer), but everywhere else it threatens to replace the more obvious “offer” by writers who want the gesture to sound grand and posh. Proffering a lift to the gala isn’t any different from offering a ride to the party.

  11. The word that I hate most is actually 2 words, baby daddy (or mama). It grates on my nerves whenever I hear it. It is as if the speaker is uneducated. Or lazy.

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