"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Big Words Belong on the Playground

May 19th, 2015 by

I have a confession to make. In one week recently, I used, mostly without forethought, the following words: disenfranchised, synchronicity, bildungsroman, and sinister. The middle two I used in my writing. The last I used in a conversation about being left-handed, which I am, and the person I was talking with laughed when I used it. I should just add that I don’t think that “sinister” is that great a departure from everyday conversation.

But in each case, I used the word because it seemed most appropriate, not because I was trying to impress others. I used them, as I said, without thinking. They just slipped out. I will admit that my use of “bildungsroman” is limited to when I’m talking at literary conferences with other English professors. When I’m talking on the street, I usually say “coming-of-age-story,” which seems most clear to most people.

During the same week I used these terms without forethought, I also encountered, on two different occasions, someone referring to “big words.” In both cases, I suddenly felt like I was back on the elementary school playground, and the adults had left and taken with them the most interesting language. I was a little embarrassed for the people using the term “big words.” I mean, adults more often refer to “ten dollar words.” One person who used it is an editor at a publishing house; the other instance of it was given by an author for a popular press book. These are people who should probably know better.

It’s Really About Reading
I know this will sound snooty and elite, and maybe even offensive, and I am not trying to come off this way. Normally, I like people to use words for their appropriateness, their meaning, and their sound, and not for the number of syllables. Rather than sounding like I want to join the upper class, I simply want to underscore how diction is enhanced. In this enterprise, the value of reading and spending time around people who use language well and honestly, when that might include some “big words,” cannot be stressed enough. I’d like to invite the adults back to the playground, because that will be best for the kids. I’d like for us to follow a person’s train of thought and not become embarrassed when we hear a word the meaning of which we don’t know. After all, when that happens, that’s not generally the speaker’s or the writer’s fault. It’s ours. And it is our opportunity to learn something, to expand on what we do know.

And it’s not our fault, I might add, because we didn’t take enough vocabulary tests in school. Those things are generally useless. It doesn’t help to memorize a word for a test if we aren’t going to learn how it works in society. If anything, it is better to follow the wonderful example of Malcom X and copy words by hand from a dictionary. Then listen to them being used by writers. And read books.

Memorizing words for a vocabulary test never worked in my Spanish class, and it only makes the words in my first language, English, sound like foreign terms. What I learned a while ago was this: If I am interested in words, they will open up new worlds. This starts with reading. Read often, read variety, and read above your level. A word is new; never seen it before? Today, you no longer even need a dictionary. There’s now dictionary.com. Or Google. Use these. They are fast.

But don’t stop reading. Reading is where you encounter the words where they live, in their own neighborhoods. You see them interacting with their friends. They start to make sense. You know when and how they want to appear.

And this starts the kind of feedback loop you want, the one where you start to use new words—and, most interestingly, new ideas. The two seem related.

The old loop, in which the adults leave the playground, just leads to fewer words, and sadly, fewer and smaller ideas.

I recently heard a movie star refer to his newly released movie as “epic.” I know that all he meant by that was “big.” He should have used “big,” because “epic” has some other meanings wrapped up in it that I know the movie he was advertising didn’t possess.

Want to do better than that? Want to build a new vocabulary? Read. Find words in their contexts. You will no longer say “simplistic,” which is insulting when you really meant to say “simple.”

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Comment by Piru on May 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm

The acception of ‘sinister’ has long been ‘evil’ or ‘malignant’, not left-handed, though.

Comment by Tom on May 20, 2015 at 2:24 pm

Yes, of course. We were just both aware of the more ghostly associations of the word.

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