Speak Simply and Carry a Big Vocabulary

I’ve revised Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy plan in the title, I don’t think he’ll mind.

When I was a kid, I really liked reading books that were a little above my reading level. I got a little thrill out of having to consult the dictionary over new words.  I thought, when friends flipped through my pleasure reading, that it made me look super-smart to read something so tough.  My brain was a big source of my self-esteem, so why wouldn’t I read things that made me feel smarter?

This led to a precocious tendency to overuse 50-cent and dollar-sized words when the simple nickel variety would have sufficed.  Often, when I’d figured out definitions via context clues instead of a dictionary round, it also led to some crazy malapropisms.  I’m sure I was adorable, this nerdy little kid with a vocabulary bigger than her overbite misusing big words.

My husband and I giggled over the fact that we’d learned a lot of words from reading, and didn’t realize “E-pit-o-Me” and “Epi-tome” were the same word until high school or college. We mispronounced words we had read dozens of times, but never heard spoken out loud.  We misunderstood their meanings.

The thing about going through that phase of looking like a pretentious dumbass when you’re still young is that eventually, you get to grow out of it. Nowadays, I will look up the 50-cent word I’m thinking about including in an email before I hit send… just to be sure I’m using it properly.  I am a fan of seeking the perfect word, and I don’t shy away from the polysyllabic.   I do have one rule of thumb: The more complex the concept, the simpler the words.

At work, there is a corporate myth that if you use big words and complicated sentence structure, it makes you sound smarter. I’ve never once found that to be true. In fact, I’m convinced that a person trying to mask their own intelligence in this way is either an idiot, or terribly insecure.  In my own work, I feel like it demonstrates a deep level of understanding of a topic to be able to simplify it into general layman’s terms. In my experience, if you have to use jargon, you don’t understand it well enough.

In writing, the drive is different. I think the complex vocabulary use reflects a desire to cultivate a “writing style” or to create literature where the words are strung together in completely new and amazing ways.

As a kid, I adored stuff that was written this way.  When I tried to reread some of my old favorites, though, I cringed all the way through them. I still liked the characters and the plots, but the prose was killing me.  Now, I generally steer clear of anything that’s written with “purple prose” or anything that complicates the text unnecessarily.

What do you think? Anyone else have similar experiences as a reader, writer, corporate cog?

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5 thoughts on “Speak Simply and Carry a Big Vocabulary

  1. I’ve had very similar experiences. I disagree with using big words just to sound smart, and I think using simpler words – where they’re appropriate – is better than using a bigger word where it doesn’t fit. But there are exceptions. There are some corporate situations where you may actually need to dress things up more.

    In my Linguistics class at Rowan University, I had a teacher who had another job as a communication therapist. She dealt with patients who had suffered head traumas or other brain damage that hampered their ability to speak. Often, they had to get approval from someone higher up to begin treatment, since they had to demonstrate the urgency of it. Some patients would be denied treatment (I think because this clinic was government funded and they had to consider whether the patient had mental health coverage on their insurance or if it would instead be paid for by the government). My teacher would sometimes have to convince the higher ups to overturn the decision and approve treatment, because a delay (such as delaying until the insurance company authorizes the expense) would lead to permanent brain damage.

    She found that if she worded the request in layman’s terms, it was more likely to get denied. If, however, she used technical jargon (jargon the people making the decisions actually didn’t understand as easily), it was more likely to get approved. In essence, the decision-makers saw the situation as being more serious if more serious words were used.

  2. First of all, yes – there’s something beautiful about well-executed simplicity. Secondly, I’m very glad that someone else thought that e-pi-tomes were a thing. I don’t even remember what I thought they were, but I remember being a little bit heartbroken when I learned that they didn’t exist.

  3. I tutored a student who was convinced that huge words made him look brilliant. He didn’t get the nuances of meaning, though, and so nothing he wrote ever quite made sense. He refused to simplify his language. In the end, it made him look much less intelligent than he actually was.

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