Saturday, May 03, 2008

Word of the Week: bannock

A couple weeks ago I wrote about gormless, a word that came up in a book review in the Toronto Star. I was annoyed at being side-tracked in my reading by a word I didn’t know. In that post I mentioned that I don’t mind looking up words, which is true. (The fact that I run “Word of the Week” is an indication of my fascination with words and language, and of my general interested in learning new words.)

The point I was making by writing about gormless was that the writer could easily have used a more common word instead (like “slow-witted” or “stupid”, which is how my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.) defines it). Indeed, I couldn’t help feel that one of the main reasons the writer used the word was to impress the reader with her vocabulary. But, in doing that, she also risked alienating readers, which a writer should not take lightly. Had I been the newspaper’s copy editor, I would have changed the word.

So, that brings us to this week’s word of the week: bannock. Here’s how my Webster’s defines it: a thick, flat cake made of oatmeal or barley meal baked on a griddle.

Bannock came to my attention recently when I was reading “Three Day Road”, a captivating novel by Joseph Boyden. The story is about two young Cree who grew up together and went off to World War I. The word came up a few times and from the context I could tell it was a type of food. When I finished the book, I decided to look it up -- mainly to see whether it was a food that was particularly associated with natives. (Like pemmican, which, as someone American born, I had never heard of but which all Canadians I've come across seem to know. For those interested, pemmican is a concentrated food that Hudson’s Bay fur traders learned to make from the natives. It's made of dried meat (typically Buffalo) and fat (about a 50/50 ratio!) and sometimes dried fruit is added.)

Anyway, I didn’t object to looking up bannock (as I did with having to look up gormless) because when you read a novel you're doing so to be entertained and enriched, so coming across a new word is part of the adventure of such reading. When reading a newspaper article, however, you're reading to get information and the use of highbrow words -- especially when a very simple, straightforward word would do just as well -- is an unwelcome distraction.


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