How to read Will Self: Unlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand

Will Self may be right to condemn the resolute plainness of George Orwell's prose. Just don't try approaching his own work without a decent dictionary, says James Kidd

Will Self, the novelist, critic and broadcaster, has chiselled a successful career out of being a sesquipedalian. This, as Self noted in 2012, means "a lover of obscure words" and is brandished more often as an insult than a panegyric. Self's engorgement on verbiage is often accompanied by a concomitant commitment to berating dull language. In his latest broadside against the limits of plain speaking and tedious writing, he takes to task that "talented mediocrity" George Orwell.

The centre of Self's objections is Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language", which argues: "Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." These bad habits include allowing words to become phrases, the unnecessary use of foreign idioms and idle use of "dying metaphors" such as Achilles heel.

Orwell's despair at "the slovenliness of our language" conceals for Self "old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself". In the article for the BBC, he adds that Standard English is a fossil that has long been superseded by African American Vernacular English, which "offers its speakers more ways of saying more things – you feel me?"

Finding more ways of saying more things could describe Self's entire oeuvre (sorry, George). Why use one syllable when 23 might do? As he once said: "I'd observe that English, being a mishmash of several different languages, had a large and exciting vocabulary, and that it seemed a shame not to use it – especially given that it went on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt."

From the first, quite ordinary sentences would suddenly scoot off the page thanks to Self's striking coinage. "Ward 9", from his first book of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, contained this sentence: "Tom rolled his lovely eyes back in their soft, scented sockets as if picturing the psychiatrist's matitudinal routine." My Kindle and Word dictionaries both drew a blank at matitudinal. Luckily, Nabokov's "matitudinal swoon" helped me discover that the word derived from "matin, an ecclesiastical duty performed early in the morning". In Cock and Bull, another character "stopped and looked at me, slope-shouldered, ectomorphic". Frankly, the online Encyclopaedia Britannica wasn't much help: "A person is classed as an ectomorph if ectomorphy predominates over endomorphy and mesomorphy in his body build..."

Self shows little sign of slowing his pace. In his new novel, Shark, his gush of a narrative flow blends all manner of registers into an unbroken multi-consciousness (or something): "He re-experiences this metempsychosis [transmigration of the soul] now: the hydrocephalic [swollen due to water on the brain] brow of his foetal self, its vestigial [atrophied, functionless due to evolution] limbs, its premature thumb-suck and the neon-blue delta of arteries worming over its fontanelle [the soft spot between the cranial bones of an infant's skull]."

Even Self's blog requires a decent dictionary and set of cultural references. The upthrusting Shard is "a teasing a la recherche de priapisme perdu". The book festival is a phenomenon because "serried municipalities have figured out that, as desperate writers will do almost anything for no money whatsoever, it's a cheap way of inculcating their miserable and isolate burghs with a little kulturkampf".

It is easy to mock Self's mockery of Orwell – ridiculously easy if yesterday's reader comments are anything to go by. "Self suffers from verbal diarrhoea which obfuscates rather than illuminates his meaning," wrote one outraged poster. Yet his exultation in and celebration of English as a living language that swoops from the medical to the Anglo-Saxon, from the Latinate to the phonetic ("Waa-waa-waaa! W'waaa") is bracing at a time when most novels are in thrall to the cat-sat-on-the-mat school of prose.

Perhaps it's because of spellcheck or the exigencies of global business English, perhaps it's because we read on the bus rather than in the armchair, perhaps it's because IQs are falling, but this is an age that misunderstands Hemingway's terseness as simplicity and one in which James Patterson is the world's best-selling novelist: "Dressed now in a black leather jacket, black jeans, black polo shirt, and black harness boots, Marcus Sunday hurried..."

Come on, James. Why not make that jacket obsidian, the jeans melanoid, that shirt atramentous, those boots stygian? Here's to Will.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture