Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sesquipedalian loquaciousness

An acquaintance asked a rhetorical question, "At the risk of sounding like a pretentious sesquipedalian, if you have $5 words, why not use them? You ought to be getting your money's worth."

This inspired some thoughts about big words--words that are 1.5 feet in length or longer. (Sesqui = 1.5. Pedalian = relating to feet.)

I think that it depends upon what you got for your $5. The first consideration when contemplating long word use should be introspection: Don't be a Dogberry. In Much Ado, Shakespeare's Dogberry is an ass, because he uses words whose meanings he does not understand.

So, you've heard the word "loquaciousness" and you think it's a good fit for your writing. But are you really sure you know what it means? If you have to run to the dictionary, stop. You don't know it well enough to use it.

Some times much speaking is not loquaciousness and do you know when that is? The word must fit better than a square peg in a square hole. It must be right.

If you've read the word in only one place, don't use it. If you've never encountered it in conversation, don't use it. Sesquipedalian loquaciousness must be reserved to that subset of your vernacular on which you stand most firmly.

I regard words as semantic legos that one strings together to express thoughts in sentences and paragraphs. Most times the simple retangular bricks do the trick. This argues for the predominance of homely words. You can get the most semantic bang for the vernacular buck with homely words.

Yet some ideas, like "holomorphic vector bundles on stein manifolds" require the jargon of the specialist. Other words my lawyer friends tell me are "terms of art" wherein specialists say things that seem on their face to mean one thing, but in the peculiar context they were used they shall mean another. If you don't know this, don't use this.

Finally, let's turn our attention from the writer and what s/he knows to the reader and what s/he knows. If your reader is online and only a few clicks away from a google search, that's an entirely different thing than if your reader is OFFline and at least a few klicks (as in kilometers) from the nearest dictionary.

The writer may tease the reader, but should not annoy the reader. Or make the reader feel stupid.

Really, really smart and important people have no idea what sesquipedalian means. And only people with some kind of weird word fetish can get as far as "something about 1.5 foot." (This is why you want your kids to study Latin in school.) If you seriously expect your reader to know a long word, it had better be with the awareness that you--the writer--are crazy, and they--your readers--are normal.

I am a hopeless pedant and I thank you all for tolerating me.

The writer should build the majority of his prose around homely words that everyone understands. And when s/he puts in a less-common word, context should provide effective clues as to its meaning.

Take vernacular, a word that drove me to the dictionary when I was younger. The phrase "that subset of your vernacular" can clue the careful reader that something with a subset is also a set. We're talking about words, so it's a set of words. And I said, "your vernacular" which means it's something you possess. So, vernacular is the set of words you use.

After peppering this note with all these foot-and-a-half-long words, I hope I haven't made a Dogberry of myself.

1 comment:

  1. I strongly agree with your conclusion ("the writer should build the majority of his prose around homely words that everyone understands ...")

    On the other hand, in conversation (more than in writing), I think it's good to take risks on words you KINDA know. That's how kids build vocabulary. I don't think we should stop doing that as adults.

    One implication is that friends shouldn't be afraid to correct each other when a word is used incorrectly (or when a different word would have been better). So I explicitly give you permission there ;-)


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