Friday, January 28, 2011

Big Words

I have been accused of using too many "big" words more than the total word-count of Marcel Proust's collected works.  That is, of course, an exaggeration.  Still, the number of times I have endured the crassness of being told "you use too many big words," or "why don't you just speak in English," or "would it hurt you to speak a little more simply" has become a source of silent irritation for me.

So now I'm going to write about it.  And I may just use sesquipedalian verbiage to spurn any familiar detractors.

To start, Ayn Rand wrote "words are a lens to focus one's mind."  If that is true, then the larger the lens the greater the focus.  Which really stands to reason since the proper use of a bigger word is not an easily accomplishable feat for the neophytic philologist.  Can I say that my use of larger words has always been clear, and well executed?  Heavens no!  I amassed an admirable storehouse of "big" words at a very young age simply by listening to the adults around me.  I didn't really know how to use those words properly, however, until I was more mature.

That's when I entered highschool.  In highschool, I was practically battered with small-worded accusations by friends and classmates alike for using words outside of their ken.  The same unthinking trend followed me through college and seminary, too. It was really quite demoralizing.

Who of us would arrange the courage in ourselves to accuse an excellent musician of being too quick at trills?  What right-minded individuals would upset themsevles for a gymnast's greater agility and balance?  It would seem to me that having a decent capacity for expression is no greater a crime than being able to run faster than others, or tickle out a frenzy of notes on the ivories with more finesse than the typical church pianist.

Now, I could go ahead and estimate the kind of distorted psychology that prompts such ill-reasoned attempts at censoring another's self-expression, but that would be too much of a meandering speculation for me to feel comfortable with.  Instead, what I've boiled things down to, in my own mind, is a more generous perspective. 

I think it's simply a matter of "jargon."  That is, people have environmentally prescribed jargon-sets that help them navigate their way through assumed common experiences.  And depending on the variety and intensity of those experiences, the amount and use of jargon changes.  But when faced with someone who can work with jargon across varied and diverse fields, communication can become a little intimidating.

So, what about jargon?

Well, everybody speaks it. Some more than others. It's especially rampant amongst chattering intellectuals, the back offices of medical centres, and the austere corridors of academia. But it happens on the street, too, where the “huddled masses” spin their cant in an ever-evolving dance of gritty descriptions and colourful metaphors.

When people speak their jargon on the streets we call it “slang.” When people pour out the lingo in cloistered meeting halls, sipping coffee and polishing their chins, we dignify it by labelling it “terminology.” And it may very well be that. But the only difference between the terminology of the person on the street, and the slang built in to certain fields of study is the environment in which they're used.

Who hasn't had the common experience of meeting-up with a co-worker at the coffee maker and spending the next several minutes listening intently to a subject that seems distant, foreign, even arcane? Who hasn't had the experience of being that person at the coffee maker percolating stories in strange terms while your co-worker squints on, earnestly attempting to relate to what you're saying?

It's something that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described very well when he wrote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922). The words people use give an indication of the personal world of their experiences. A person used to living in the harsh backwoods of the Yukon wilderness may very well seem like a different creature to the savvy urbanite used to a steady diet of posh trends, and fashionable mannerisms. The point remains though: however they choose to talk about their experiences, they bring their worlds to each other by the very words they use.

So to argue by accusation that another uses too many "big" words can (as it did in my case) have the effect not only of diminishing one's own world by sneering at expansion, but demeaning another's world by snidely implying it is 'wrong' or 'difficult' because it is too big.  Having given some thought to this subject, it seems obvious to me that the best course of action when dealing with someone who has a demonstrably wide grasp of the English language (or any language, for that matter), would be to ask for definitions and explanations when fronted with a word one doesn't know.  The residuals may just be that your own world is given greater scope and colour, and that the other's world is appreciated and made more enjoyable.

Not a bad trade-off, really.  Wouldn't you agree?


justsomename said...

I have never been bothered by your vocabulary.
There is a great song with that line about limits of my language but I can't remember the band.
How do you feel then about contextualizing your language?
My own vocabulary has probably suffered because in my thought process is often, the priority is to be concerned about the listener more than the accurate capturing of my thoughts.
Similarly, I used to write a lot of poetry that accurately captured my thoughts for me but that other people didn't always get. So, I don't write that style as often because I would usually rather be easily understood.
If you were stuck in a low income area in the usa and you needed to talk to one of the locals, would you place priority on using words that accurately capture your thoughts or words that the local will understand?

Kane Augustus said...


I'm glad that you've never had any difficulty with my vocabulary. If I remember the results of your IQ test accurately (IQ 146), it really doesn't surprise me that you have a better grasp of detailed language.

Contextualizing language is part of what I meant when I wrote "...when faced with someone who can work with jargon across varied and diverse fields." I'm one of those people who can pick up multiple jargon-sets and apply them where they're needed. That said, I do contextualize the words I know.

You asked, "If you were stuck in a low income area in the usa and you needed to talk to one of the locals, would you place priority on using words that accurately capture your thoughts or words that the local will understand?"

First, I'm not a bigot. I don't determine the level of intelligence based on the economic viability of an area.

Second, I don't assume the ignorance of the people I'm talking with, so I don't dichotomize between accurate use of words to capture my thoughts, and the more common words the locals might prefer I speak. I enter into all conversations expecting people to ask for clarification if they don't understand. I work under the same expectation, too: I ask when I don't understand.

I think it's just fair-play to treat others as well-meaning despite their word choices, and not assume their (potential) effrontery until they expose it themselves. I hope people will do the same with me.

How about you? What is your answer to your question?

justsomename said...

lol... I jump to assumptions about people. I would use the clearest & simplest phrasing that I could come up with and then get myself out of there.... (depending on how terrible the place was).
I have found that I'm naturally very good at communicating in English to people who are just learning or who know very little English because I pick up quickly on the speed & vocabulary that they can understand... (I do this entirely based on assumptions). I've had lots of people say that they have difficulty understanding other people when they speak English but they can understand me...
Anyhow, I usually won't use a big word or jargon if it's my best guess that the person who I'm talking to doesn't know the word. I don't think of it as an insult to them.

Kane Augustus said...


"Anyhow, I usually won't use a big word or jargon if it's my best guess that the person who I'm talking to doesn't know the word. I don't think of it as an insult to them."

This would be my tactic only if I know the person well-enough to have a fair understanding of their interests and general knowledge base. If I was speaking to a stranger, I would not make a best guess at all. In such circumstances (talking to a stranger), the best guess is just as likely to be the worst guess. Savvy?