Said-bookism: A verb used in place of “said” – almost always a needless distraction. From “said book,” a pamphlet of synonyms for “said.” Said-bookism is a subspecies of “the elegant variation,” the term coined by H.W. Fowler (1858–1933) to describe a substitution of one word for another for the sake of variety.1
Although I was trained early in my editing career to purge manuscripts of fancy synonyms for “said,” I learned only recently that there was a name for the writing sin I’d been correcting. Stephen Dodson, in his Language Hat blog, educated me:
I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as a “said book” listing innumerable substitutes for the simple and useful verb “said,” but that concept is the basis of the term “said-bookism,” known to most professional writers as something to avoid as a sure sign of amateurism.
Said-bookism comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a collection of terms used in discussing science-fiction writing. The lexicon was developed by the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, a workshop for professional science-fiction writers founded in Texas in 1973. The full lexicon – which includes wonderful entries like Phildickian, nowism, and ficelle character – has been published on the Science Fiction Writers of America website; it’s useful for writers of other genres (and nonfiction).
Television writers, for example. Here’s how the peerless TV Tropes website begins its entry on said-bookism:
“Why would they do this?” ejaculated Alice.
“Because,” explicated Bob, “it was the fashion at one point. There were even ‘said books’ you could get mail order with lists of the words that can be used instead of said as saying said was discredited during that time. That's where the name of the trope comes from,” he further proclaimed.
Some Tom Swifties rely on said-bookisms for their humor – “‘I used to be a paratrooper,’ Tom explained” – although most use adverbs to drive home the pun. (“‘We have no oranges,’ Tom said fruitlessly.”) The Twilight books are flagrant perpetrators of self-bookisms, as the Reasoning with Vampires Tumblr makes painfully evident.
In a more serious vein (sorry, Twilight fans; this sort of thing is infectious), here’s the Letter Go blog on “What’s Wrong with Using a Said Bookism?”:
The very thing that editors love about the word ‘said’ is the thing that makes some writers shun it. ‘Said’ is unremarkable, unadorned, invisible. It blends into the background, allowing the dialogue to dominate the sentence and the reader’s eye to skip along unimpeded by the writer’s clever turn of phrase.
Remember that the writer’s job isn’t to wow the reader with beautiful prose and punchy word choice. The writer’s job is to tell a story so real that the reader lives it. The action, dialogue and internal dialogue are the stars of the show. The adverbs, adjectives and said bookisms are the special effects – too much and the reader either becomes jaded or pays more attention to them than to the story.
1 The most famous example of an elegant variation is “elongated yellow fruit” for “banana.” As Ben Yagoda observes – um, says – sportswriters are especially productive generators of elegant variations.
2 Yes, singular “they” can be kosher. I refer skeptics to Baltimore Sun copyeditor John McIntyre.