What is misprision?

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: misprision.

I can’t escape the notion that, every once in awhile, some authors use words to show off.

I level this critique at James Lasdun, (pictured above), author of the memoir Give Me Everything You Have, a reflection on his time being stalked by a former student. A British-born American writer, Lasdun has produced two novels, four collections of short stories, four books of poetry and two guidebooks, in addition to his memoir. He has also taught writing at Princeton, New York University, the New York State Writers’ Institute, the New School and Columbia University.

Clearly, he is awash in credentials.

I haven’t read any of his books apart from the memoir, but I didn’t like it. To be fair, he had taken on a Herculean task: defending himself against a student who seemed bent on revenge for her own failure to write. Still, I didn’t like Lasdun’s writing very much. Here is a sentence I particularly disliked:

I catch myself falling into my old, ignorant misprision of preening self-delight. 

Yes, he’s wise to be modest and self-depracatory. But I find it odd that he uses a $10 noun like misprision to do so. The word, which means a “wrong action, a failure on the part of authority,” dates back to the early 15th century and comes from the from Anglo-French misprision meaning, “mistake, error, wrong action or speech.”

The word carries legal connotations, which, perhaps, is what he was aiming at. Still, I don’t like the way it plays in the sentence. I also dislike the phrase preening self-delight, which seems a little too self-depracatory. (Maybe he was going for the alliteration in misprision of preening? But it feels too forced, to me.)

I may check out his other books if only to see if they read the same way. But I wasn’t a fan of this one.

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