These days, in matters of vocabulary, to use a word that is not understood by the lowest common denominator of our society is almost to be seen as politically incorrect or offensive. We are so bombarded by the mantra of “write clearly and simply” that to use any word that is not readily known by all is to be labeled “elitist” or “pretentious” or “bombastic,” no matter that the word in question may be legitimate and perfectly suited for the occasion; indeed, that it may be the best word for the occasion.
It often seems that when a writer uses a word that is not instantly recognized by everyone, it must be an example of poor writing, because (so the argument goes) the only good writing is that which is “clear”-using a limited vocabulary understood by all. Virtually any time a word used writer goes over the reader’s head, you can be sure that someone will old gripe about “having to reach for a dictionary”. However, people don’t realize how often we are presented with harder words, because our natural inclination is to glaze over them, as opposed to looking them up in a dictionary. Consider:
A recent editorial in a Pittsburgh paper said: “The fact that [Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Joe] Hoeffel views [state] sovereignty as a four-letter word is absolutely sciolistic. Back to school, Joe. Google Article I and 10th Amendment.”
The word “sciolistic” means a pretense to scholarship. It was absolutely the perfect word choice for the occasion. But how many readers of the article either knew that word or, more importantly, would stop to look it up? Very few?
The beauty of many hard words is that they are economical because they take the place of several simpler (read: more mundane) words. “Sciolistic” is one example. Here’s another: In a recent issue of Newsweek, managing editor Jon Meachem, in discussing the magazine’s financial troubles, stated: “We are not Planglossian about the issues at hand.” Planglossian means blindly or naively optimistic and is based on Dr. Pangloss, the optimistic tutor of Candide in the novel of the same name, by Voltaire.
Even in those situations where there may be an exact simpler word than the one chosen, a hard word can certainly enliven one’s writing. For example, in a recent New York Times article about Facebook, the author wrote that “Jeffrey Toobin, a CNN legal analyst, credits (or blames) the election of 2008 for his Brobdingnagian list [of Facebook friends].
No doubt the author could have referred to Mr. Toobin’s “really big” or “huge” list of Facebook friends but would that grab the reader’s attention as much? It would not.
As William F. Buckley once stated: “We tend to believe that a word is unfamiliar because it is unfamiliar to us.” However, if we are to avoid a permanent shrinking of our collective vocabularies, we must get away the mindset that the use of hard words by others is simply a poor reflection on the people that sue them. The presentation of hard words ought to give each of us the chance to expand our vocabularies.