A discussion about writing advice crossed my social media stream this week. One topic was archaic similes that literate people know the meaning of, but because they refer to practices or objects that are no longer part of daily life, no longer conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The first example was “hoist with his own petard,” which many people more-or-less understand, but since almost none of the people who recognize it knows that a petard is a small explosive device, and that the word hoist being used here is the past participle meaning to “lift and remove.” So the full meaning of the phrase as Shakespeare first used it is that a person who has tried to set a bomb against another person has instead had it blow up in his own face (and removed them from the situation).
An informal survey I conducted many years ago among acquaintances at a gaming event proved that a substantial number of people were certain that a petard was part of a sailing ship, and so the image they all had was of people being hooked on some sort of winch and raised into the air. One could argue that that is close enough, but it is definitely a different image than the evil bomber who is taken out by his own bomb.
Someone else suggest that the phrase “chock-full” fell into the same category because many people don’t know what a chock is. And… well, it is probably true that a lot of people don’t know what a chock is, but the noun, chock (meaning a block or wedge of wood) didn’t enter the English language until the 1700s, where it derived from a French word meaning a log. Whereas chock-full was an English word more than 400 years before chock, and it has no connection to the noun.
chokkeful Middle English crammed full
The earliest written version is from the year 1400, but there is reason to believe the word is older than that. And it has always meant “crammed full.” Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. The only thing that etymologists aren’t sure of is whether it is a derivative of the Old German (and Saxon and Old English) word chokke which as a noun originally meant “jaw or cheek” and as a verb meant to grasp a person by the jaw, or if it comes from on Old French word choquier which meant to “collide, strike, or crash.” If the former, than the image our 15th century ancestors was imagining was a mouthful. If the latter, the image was of someone forcing more things into a container than it ought to be able to hold.
Now, if the argument is that one must imagine the exact same physical manifestation of a word for it to be meaningful, I guess you could say people ought not use chock-full, given that some people think it has something to do with chocks. But if that is the standard, than no words can ever be used. Besides, I abide by a slightly different school of thought. Chock-full hasn’t been a simile for at least 600 years. It is simply a word that means “crammed full” and since that meaning has been the same for all that time, well, the only native English speakers who are going to be confused by it are those that are over thinking things.
If chock-full is a word that you use in every day speech, then if it seems to fit in something you’re writing, use it.
The problem with making word choices while writing isn’t whether a specific word would be defined exactly the same by every reader, but whether the word flows naturally in the narrative. For a lot of people, “hoist with his own petard” is an affectation that has been inserted into the narrative to emulate Shakespeare. And every writer goes through a phase where they are trying on styles and phrasings of writers they admire. If you do that, the reader will seee that inauthenticity right away.
So the first rule is: is it a word that you use yourself without having to think about it? If so, it fits your style and is probably okay to use. The second rule is, is the way you use it one of the commonly understood definitions, or it is jargon—is it a specialized meaning of the word that is only understood by members of a particular profession, sub-culture, or clique? Well, then maybe limit its use.
Of course, there is a difference between word choices in the narration than words used in dialogue. Maybe your character fancies themself a Shakespearean hero and is constantly quoting (or misquoting) lines from famous plays. Of course a character like that is going to use the phrase “hoist with his own petard,” and you, the author, will likely have another character ask what it means or correct him when he says it wrong (and I have heard so many people, probably because they think a petard is a winch or similar rather than a bomb, say it “hoist on his own petard”). That works just fine!
There is also the choice of audience. Maybe you intend your story primarily for members of a particular community. Even then, I still point back to rule number one: stick to words you use conversationally yourself. And if you’re not sure, read the whole scene outloud. Any phrase or sentence that trips up your tongue needs to be re-written, because if you can’t say it without getting tongue-tied, it isn’t written in your voice.
Don’t choke on the vocabulary, don’t shove in pretentious phrases, and don’t get cheeky.