ThoughtShades FrameWork

Essays, Themes, Opinions

Constructs, Practical Ideas, Applications

Poetry, Impression Writing

Sermons, Devotions

Personal Revelations, Illustrations

Viewpoint: Politics, Contemporary Issues, Editorials


Choice Offerings by Others

Powered by Squarespace
« Truths About Governments | Main | Are We Getting Too Gray? »

Do You Know Any Big Words?


Antidisestablishmentarianism. My sister, Carol, taught me how to pronounce and spell that word when I could barely talk. It’s a twenty-eight lettered, twelve-syllabled term meaning “against the tearing down of churches.” It meant a lot in nineteenth century England and Ireland, but today, its main distinction is that it is one of the longest words in the English language. Now, it doesn’t even hold that record.  Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, with forty-five letters and nineteen syllables is presently considered to be our longest word, according to Wikipedia. They dub it a “factitious” word, coined to describe a condition that most of us call “black lung disease.” Okay. That will probably do it…unless you want to talk about floccinaucinihilipilification…I didn’t think so.

My kindergarten teacher was pretty impressed with my ability to say and spell that big word, but I painfully discovered that others, especially my peers, were more apt to think I was a little freakish for knowing it. I did my best to speak normally for the rest of my childhood, but in high school I joined the debate team and things went south in the verbal arts. (See what I mean?) But, it was unavoidable. I mean, how can you intelligently discuss “Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization” without resorting to fine-tuned, multisyllabic words to express your meaning? Besides that, I had to compete against my opponents in front of English professors from institutions like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. To be non-conversant in technical terminology (I really am hopeless!) would be suicidal. After my third year of varsity debate competition, my penchant for big words had become ingrained in my brain.

In my view, big words can be shortcuts to precise communication. One right word can eliminate the need for ten to twenty little words to approximate the meaning. The problem is, of course, if the target audience doesn’t understand the word, the positive becomes a negative. The rule of thumb (called a heuristic) that I like is to use the basketball approach. The ten-foot high goal in basketball is low enough to be reachable, but high enough to be a challenge. What a silly game it would be if the goal were at the six foot level! Use words that may be slightly over people’s heads but not out of their reach. Make them stretch a little bit. Also, most people can understand bigger words, even if they don’t use them. Again, the audience dictates the style.

The downside of big words, however, can be catastrophic. Ever heard of obfuscation? It means making something so confusing, so opaque, that it hides the true meaning. The language of diplomacy, or diplospeak, has its place. “Diplomacy is primarily words that prevent us from reaching for our swords,” observed Bosnian scholar-diplomat Drazen Pehar. But if the same results happen, like one country taking over another, or one person robbing another person blind, then where is the advantage? Michael Crichton calls medical writing a “highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader”. [1] B.F. Skinner savages medical notation as a form of multiple audience control which allows the doctor to communicate to the pharmacist things which might be opposed by the patient if they could understand it. [2]

No arena uses more verbal obfuscation to garble up clarity than theology. The long war of words waged between Arius and Athanasius in the third and fourth centuries resulted in the classic doctrine of mumbo-jumbo and discombobulation, later known as trinitarianism. While I don’t want to be too harsh, see if you can understand some of its component pieces, as stated in the Creed of Athanasius: “8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. 9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. 10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. 11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. 12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.” The one thing incomprehensible about the doctrine is that it, in and of itself, is incomprehensible.

Today, many scholars have taken a step backwards from hardline trinitarianism because, in all honesty, they cannot make the concept mesh with the terminology. writes, “ In a recent book on the Trinity, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner recognizes that theologians in the past have been “… embarrassed by the simple fact that in reality the Scriptures do not explicitly present a doctrine of the ‘imminent’ Trinity (even John’s prologue is no such doctrine)” (The Trinity, p. 22). (Author’s emphasis.) Other theologians also recognize the fact that the first chapter of John’s Gospel—the prologue— clearly shows the pre-existence and divinity of Christ and does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. After discussing John’s prologue, Dr. William Newton Clarke writes: ‘There is no Trinity in this; but there is a distinction in the Godhead, a duality in God. This distinction or duality is used as basis for the idea of an only-begotten Son, and as key to the possibility of an incarnation” (Outline of Christian Theology, p. 167).

As you may surmise, we could go on forever discussing the aspects of the Trinitarian controversy. My purpose is simply to illustrate how our vocabulary can either clarify or confuse, depending upon our intent. The best strategy to use for accurate communication is to envision a ladder. When you climb a ladder, you are the same person, but you can reach different things the higher you climb. Likewise, the concept should remain unchanged at any level, even though the terminology may get more complex at higher levels. Whatever I attempt to convey to an audience, I must make sure that my word choice does not alter the basic meaning of my thought. Whenever we choose big words to fool people, to shade meanings or to manipulate minds, our methods are disingenuous.

This decidedly devious intent motivates much of the political correctness that literally plagues our culture today. In fact, nuancing or massaging the message is the very point in employing different words. Within a culture, people react to words in somewhat predictable ways. We use the word “stereotype” to express this idea. Some words are laden with emotional meaning; other words, although referring to the same thing, evoke only mild responses. Take the words “baby” and “fetus;” or, “unborn child” and “product of conception.” If we want to pump emotion into a thought, we use certain words. If we want to strip all the emotion out of the identical thought, we use words generally considered equivalent. Politicians have a field day with such euphemisms. They either use the word “taxation” or “investment”, depending on how they want their audiences to react. They use the phrase “boys and girls in uniform” or “military personnel” according to their intent. It is easy to see how this works. But people are smarter than that. Eventually, they will catch on that the speakers mean the same thing with the new words that they meant with the old ones. Once the speakers realize that they’ve been found out, it’s on to a new generation of equivocations, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Anyone who has ever worked with the deaf culture understands what it means to be straightforward and direct. Most deaf persons don’t clutter up their communication with equivocations, minced words and fluff. In fact, their style of speech is considered blunt or even rude to most hearing people. They don’t fool around with “obese”, “rotund”, “plump” or even “overweight.” They just say “fat.” They certainly would not say that someone was “aesthetically challenged.” No way. They’re just “ugly.” Because of the inherent constraints on their ability to communicate, they streamline their words to get at the meaning. When talking to hearing people, they often show great irritation because hearing people always “beat around the bush” instead of just coming out and saying what they mean. Many times, they even accuse hearing people of lying.

When big words are appropriate, use them. When the meaning you need to get across must diffuse hostilities, don’t use inflammatory words to stir up emotions. When the subject at hand is inherently complex, use language that is commensurate with the level of difficulty. Don’t talk up or down to people, don’t patronize people and don’t lie to people. My uncle used to say of a certain lawyer, “he was inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.” He meant that he liked to hear himself talk. At the end of the day, word choice must be a function of expeditiousness. (What?!) Let me re-phrase. Choose words that best convey your specific meaning to your particular audience. If there is a precise word that applies to a thought, use it, and then explain it if you must. “Thingy, whatchamacallit, thing-a-ma-jig, do-hickey or ‘you know what I mean,’” are the first havens of the ignorant or lazy.

Oh yes. Floccinaucinihilipilification. It means, “the act or habit of estimating or describing something as worthless, or making something to be worthless by deprecation”, according to Wikipedia. It would be worth your time to log on to Wikipedia and listen to the pronunciation of this word. It probably would not be worth your time to think of how to use it in a sentence. Good wordsmithing.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (1)

pretentious essay... I don't need big words to tell you your inclinations for "big words" is useless and frankly, stupid.

January 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter<expletive deleted>

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>