When Ray Bradbury was asked to contribute his favourite word for the 1995 book The Logophileâ€™s Orgy, he chose cinnamon: â€œThe word cinnamon derives, I suppose, from visiting my grandmaâ€™s pantry when I was a kid. I loved to read the labels on spice boxes; curries from far places in India and cinnamons from across the world.â€
If you count the millions of words Bradbury wrote over the course of all his novels, the data shows that this was no spur-of-the-moment answer: he did use the word at an unusually high rate. In fact, he used it more frequently than Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, John Steinbeck and Edith Wharton combined.
Beyond cinnamon, his grandmaâ€™s pantry had a lasting effect on the Fahrenheit 451 author. Bradbury also used other spice words such as vanilla, spearmint, licorice and nutmeg at a higher rate than the authors above combined. And he peppered in words such as curry, onion and lemon at a rate at least three times what is commonly found. The tastes and smells of the spice cabinet pervade his writing.
For my book Nabokovâ€™s Favourite Word Is Mauve, I created a computer program to sort through thousands of books by the most revered and popular authors to find out their â€œcinnamon wordsâ€ â€“ relatively rare words that a particular writer uses often. Obviously every author used function words such as â€œtheâ€ and â€œfromâ€ at a high rate, and basic adjectives like â€œbigâ€ or â€œfastâ€, but cinnamon words are the words that each author uses disproportionately compared with other writers.
Nabokov used the word â€œmauveâ€ 44 times as often as one would expect, which makes perfect sense in hindsight. He had synesthesia or, as he called it, â€œcoloured hearingâ€. When he thought of a specific letter and sound he would see colours at the same time. Unsurprisingly, he uses colours at four times the rate found in standard English writing.
Sometimes, if you look at an authorâ€™s cinnamon words, you can already hear their voice. Consider these three: civility, fancying, imprudence. If you guessed Austen, you are correct. These are the three words that, compared with the rest of written English, are mathematically the most used by Austen.
Given Nabokovâ€™s emphasis on colour, itâ€™s safe to assume he was aware of the words he favoured in his writing. However, itâ€™s possible many authors are unaware of the words they are using at an abnormal rate. Sometimes the words are inescapably linked to the topics they write about, as in Christieâ€™s case (inquest, alibi and frightful). At others, you get a sense of the authorâ€™s tone through their most uniquely used words. While Charles Dickens preferred hearted, pinch, rejoined, JRR Tolkien favoured elves, goblins and wizards, and Wharton has the polite nearness, daresay, compunction, John Updikeâ€™s three are rimmed, prick and fucked. It only takes three words (and just one four-letter word) to zero in on each writerâ€™s style and set it apart.
Using the 2013 Dictionary of Cliches by Christine Ammer, I scanned through the same collection of books to find cliches that writers use most often. There was a clear frontrunner for the title of â€œmost cliched writerâ€: James Patterson. The bestselling US author averages 160 cliches per 100,000 words, about twice as many as JK Rowling and Gillian Flynn.
Patterson writes the phrase â€œbelieve it or notâ€ in more than half his books, but heâ€™s not the only author to use at least some cliches. Austen loved to write â€œwith all my heartâ€, Dan Brown uses â€œfull circleâ€, Stephenie Meyer books are filled with â€œsighs of reliefâ€, and Rowling has her â€œdead of nightâ€. Even literary authors are fond of a cliche, with Zadie Smith falling back on â€œevil eyeâ€, Donna Tartt on â€œtoo good to be trueâ€ and Salman Rushdie using â€œthe last strawâ€ in more than half his novels. Not all cliches are bad, but itâ€™s clear some authors rely on them more than others. EL James is in the upper tier of cliche users, with one of her favourites being â€œwords fail meâ€.
Then there is the question of exclamation marks, often advised against by creative writing teachers. Elmore Leonard suggested â€œno more than two or three per 100,000 wordsâ€, though he actually averages 49 per 100,000 words in his own works. However, he used them at a slightly lower rate than Hemingway, about one-third as many as John Steinbeck, one-sixth as many as Stephen King, one-ninth as many as Austen, and one-14th as much as Dickens. James Joyce uses exclamation marks more than 1,100 times per 100,000 words â€“ 22 times the rate of Leonard.
While some great authors use exclamation marks in abundance, the general trend is for professionals to use them less than amateurs. I went through tens of thousands of stories on the website FanFiction.net, where authors write their favorite stories in the Harry Potter or Twlight universes. These authors, writing for fun and without editors, use exclamation marks at almost four times the rate of a novel that ends up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Some people are wary of combining art and science or words and numbers. I think, when done properly, the union is beautiful. Scanning a list of favourite words is not the same as reading a well-constructed story, but when considered in light of a novelistâ€™s whole career, even three simple words can provide an illuminating window into a style, and tell a story of their own.
â€¢ Ben Blattâ€™s Nabokovâ€™s Favourite Word Is Mauve is published on 23 March by Simon & Schuster.