Big words: good or bad?

I have a rich vocabulary and I like using it. Is that so bad?

According to one of my closest Wharton buddies, yes. “As soon as you pass the SAT exam, you should get rid of those words. First, you sound arrogant. Second, when use words people don’t know, you make them uncomfortable.”

I brought a departmental meeting to a halt once when I congratulated a team member for keeping our website project on schedule. I said it was a “Herculean effort.” Years and years ago I was ridiculed for the torrid sales for Jell-O Cheesecake Snacks. And I have a detractor who hates when things are “amiss.”

“No one talks that way,” he says.

Another time I used the word didactic. Truth is, I knew didactic was big when I said it. But as I began, “I’m not trying to be didactic here,” I couldn’t think of a lesser synonym.

T. Hardy challenged me. “If Joe Hage is that smart, he can think of another way to say it.” The best I could come up with was pedantic, but I don’t think that helped my case very much.

Days later, I had another didactic moment. I began, “I’m not trying to be …” and I stopped. I tried to think of an inoffensive synonym.

It seemed like a long time.

Then I gave up and said, “I’m not trying to be all teacher-y here….”

I’m pretty sure no one was offended.

Except me.

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Comments

  1. Why use big words when you can use diminutive ones? 🙂

  2. I have to say I use big words too. I love them. & Apparently the friends I have chosen to hang with are the same way. I have friends that use didactic, Herculean and pedantic in every day conversation and I can recall the actual conversations in which the words were used.

    We’ve even talked semantics,discussed conveyance of tone,debated preponderance of evidence,been harangued by irascible co-workers who cast aspersions concerning the sophistry of conservative Republicans, dreamed of being able to match the largess of Bill Gates,expound our quintessential arguments of the draconian measures of the Cheney administration,while debating our curmudgeonly octagenarian neighbor over the surfeit of American debt,many of which held quixotic ambitions hoping to one day become our thespian friends.

    But that’s starting to get braggadocious. 🙂

    Tawnyas last blog post..Mindfulness

  3. I think it’s fine to use a challenging word here and there, as long as it’s natural to your individual voice and you provide enough context so that people who don’t immediately recognize the word will come away with a pretty good sense of it.

    I don’t agree with the person who told you that unknown words make people uncomfortable. They are likely to make insecure people feel uncomfortable. But why presume your readers are insecure?

    Karen Andersons last blog post..I preferred the topless meeting

  4. I love words – big, small, common, obscure, formal, slang. We’ve inherited a rich linguistic palette, to find the right word is like having the world’s biggest box of Crayolas, not just eight fat crayons.

    But a good rule of thumb is: Know your audience.

  5. Carolyn Breuer says:

    This was a funny post, and very Joe Hage. I like big words, too, but I agree that they often make people uncomfortable. I try to tone it down. People feel uncomfortable when I start talking about research and statistics, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I see when I am losing my audience, and then I start talking faster! Oh the loneliness of the geek.

  6. The dumbing down of America is a tragedy. I remember sitting with my father while he read the NY Times and asking him what the more complex looking words meant. Those words became part of my vocabulary. Today’s children are encouraged to abbreviate (k, lol) and words that were once common vernacular are now considered “big”. I for one encourage my kids to speak with a breath and depth of the English language that includes word with more than two syllables.

  7. If real communication means “connecting,” I’m not sure it’s important (except to the Ego) what words we use.

    It all really boils down to what objective we want to accomplish. Do we want to sound smart, or do we want to communicate effectively?

    In every language and in every linguistic variation of same, all contain an infinitely rich lexicon that communicates exactly what it intends.

  8. I get stuck on a so-called big word of two “of the week.” When I was working in software, we used the word exacerbate about fifty times per meeting. I recall learning many of the “big” words I now know on the job – people would use them and while everyone was nodding knowingly I was wondering what the heck they were talking about.

    Yesterday I used the word incredulous in a sentence speaking to someone who I am quite sure had no idea what I meant by that.

    But that’s how we learn, right?

    “Big” in this context is most certainly relative, right?

    Great post. Bring on the big words, Joe! My degree advisor at ORU (an English professor) would love you for it!

    Tia

  9. I agree that knowing your audience is important (there are arguably some times where use of big words is wholly inappropriate), and I disagree with anyone that argues for the use of “teacher-y” over didactic in a general sense. No one gets the benefit if conversation is dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator. Unless we all want to live in the world of Harrison Bergeron, those of us with large vocabularies should use them to the betterment of society (i.e. share the knowledge with the world!). If people don’t know what we’re saying, they can ask, or better yet – look it up and remember it in the future!

    *This from the girl who fell in love with her husband in part because of his incredible vocabulary!

  10. One’s choice of words (plain and simple or non-ordinary and, perhaps, indicative of sophistication), I think, should depend on one’s intent in writing or speaking.

    If your primary goal is to communicate clearly, use words likely to be well understood by the audience to which your message is addressed.

    If your primary goal is to impress, uplift, or educate those in your audience who may not have attained your level of erudition, no worries. Big words will fit. Just don’t expect a high rate of success, since few will bother look up, for example, “trope,” which is a perfectly good word that comes naturally to a few, but not most of us.

    Perhaps Kristen’s husband correctly assessed his “audience” when they met. Good for him. Good for her. Sometimes it’s not a mass audience you want to reach. — Bob

    Bob Hill’s last blog post..Gary’s final messages from this world

  11. Marc, Andrew and Mike says:

    Joe- Belly-laughs from your Jell-O snacks team….by the way YOU did drive Torrid Sales Growth!

  12. No, Captain.

    We drove torrid sales growth.

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