[picture from Flickr — thanks, bradlauster!]
David Smay sent me a link to a lovely long article in the Guardian about using unusual words: From albedo to zugunruhe, in which the author, James Meek, talks about words he hasn't known and his own uneasiness about using rarer (but more exact) words.
It also has this great quote in it:
The point at which a man starts finding discrepancies in dictionaries is probably the point at which he should go for a long holiday to a place that is sleazy and restoring.
My take (and yes, I know it's self-serving, in that I make dictionaries) is that, in belletristic writing, when presented with an otherwise-equal choice between a fun, unusual word, and a boring, commonplace word, you should always choose the unusual one. Why deny your readers the "aha!" moment of finding a perfectly apt, elegantly descriptive word?
(Of course, I also think "when in doubt, wear orange," so you perhaps should take this with a grain of salt.)
Literary writing is a way to introduce readers not just to facts and ideas and emotions but to beautiful words: imagine writing a guidebook to a place that left out the best restaurants because they weren't on the subway line … if something is worthwhile, people will find a way to get there. If a word is perfect, people will figure it out.
I am NOT suggesting that technical or workaday writing should be full of fifty-cent words; "This way to the egress" is a scam, not an invitation to learning. (Or, at least, not an invitation to learning that is received gratefully!) But literature, long-form journalism, and essay writing allow for more lexical scope, and you should take advantage of it, to the best of your ability. Why not?