I was inspired to write this essay by Will Self, an unapologetic lover of obscure lexicography if ever there was one.
I begin with a confession – I like big words.
Do I hear snickering? Unkind laughter? For shame, good sirs. Verily, I am an unapologetic lover of lexicography, a celebrant at the altar of the arcane engaged in eager exploration of the recondite corners of our mother tongue.
Okay, I exaggerate – whatever gave it away? It’s true though, I do like big words.
Despite my professed love for weird and wonderful words, I confess it as though it were some sort of squalid secret or source of shame.
You see, the lot of a language-lover is not always a happy one.
We get called names like ‘know-it-all’, ‘clever clogs’ and so on. We are mocked for our verbose vocabularies which are equated in the minds of our persecutors with privilege and snobbery.
I can only assume this misconception dates back to earlier times when education – and by extension, possessing a ‘good’ vocabulary was the privilege of the idle rich.
In those days it was indeed the case that universities – and there were but few of them, operated as a sort of private country club for the scions of well-connected clans aimed solely at recreating the next generation of wealthy, bewigged toffs.
Of course this is no longer the case since university expansion over the past few decades has meant high-level education (I use the term loosely) has superficially at least, never been more available.
That’s before we even get into the information revolution where the answer to anything and everything one could possibly want is only a Google search away.
And yet the belief persists that those who use ‘big’ words in their everyday speech are at best eccentrics and at worst repulsive snobs who should be driven out of town by pitchfork-clutching luddites.
You may think I exaggerate for comic effect and perhaps I do – but consider the following example.
Years ago, I worked with a woman in the communications industry. I won’t say what doing, but suffice it to say there was some creative writing involved.
You’d perhaps expect people in such a job to have a reasonable vocabulary, a curiosity for the language they used as a tool in their daily toils.
I got an e-mail from an elderly gentleman who informed me he did not know whether his particular request fell within my ‘purview’ or not.
Foolishly, I relayed this to my colleague whose job it was to deal with such requests.
‘What the **** does that mean?’ she shrilled at me, contemptuous at him for having used such a high-faluting term and, presumably, at me for having repeated it.
While I had never deluded myself that this individual was a lover of unusual words, the vitriol with which the offending term was met surprised me and left me – ironically, lost for words.
She indignantly asked why this poor, unassuming fellow could not ‘use words from his own ****ing century.’
I have no idea of the origins of the word ‘purview’ but since it is still in use (albeit rarely) it seems unfair to lump it in with the ‘forsooths’ and the ‘flapdoodles.’
Sadly, she is not the only one I have heard disparaging the use of so-called ‘big’ words, a relative term in any case.
After all, a two-syllable word is ‘bigger’ than a one syllable word but you don’t hear anyone calling for the removal of ‘because’ from the dictionary and its enforced substitution with the supposedly hipper variant ‘cos’ or worse, ‘coz.’
And while we may be apologetic for our use of big words, I say we shouldn’t be – in fact, their use should be positively encouraged.
The easiest argument I can marshal to my cause is that English is a remarkably rich language, filled with all manner of colourful idioms and archaic terms.
It seems a shame not to use it to its fullest – if you’ve got the words after all you may as well flaunt ’em.
Another reason is the good old argument of classical Liberalism espoused by JS Mill. Namely, do as you like, so long as it doesn’t harm others. And since my using polysyllabic words cannot by any stretch of the imagination harm my fellow man (or woman), I should be allowed to continue unimpeded.
Both of these arguments are valid if a little shallow, so how’s about a third for good measure – and it’s this – that language happens to be important.
As Wittgenstein noted, the limits of a person’s language are effectively the limits of their world. We cannot talk about something if we lack the words to describe it.
You may counter with ‘well, we’ve got simple words to describe stuff so why the flowery language?’
I’m not suggesting here that a kind of wilful, perverse obscurantism should be our mantra – that we should strive to over-complicate our meanings to hide the fact we don’t know what we’re on about. We’ll leave that to career academics and politicians, both of whom have no real desire to communicate anything outside their own ivory towers.
I suggest rather the opposite, that complex words can help us express complex ideas and we should not fear to use them – or at least, not in principle.
There are after all many different shades of red, but ‘crimson’, ‘scarlet’ and ‘maroon’ conjure up more vivid images than simply saying ‘red.’ There is nothing wrong in using the word ‘red’ as a synonym for any of these shades of course, but that’s beside the point. We have the option to use the others and no one has the right to stop us.
There are also numerous words of foreign origin which so perfectly encapsulate a particular idea we’d struggle to do without them.
Try substituting a clunky sentence ‘the way the people were feeling at the time’ in preference to ‘zeitgeist’ – it’s punchier and far more satisfying.
What after all, is the purpose of language if not to communicate ideas? When people rail against ‘difficult’ words they seemingly object either to the complexity of the idea or of the word itself.
As regards the word, some of them have more than one syllable, some are foreign in origin – in fact, a great majority of the words we use are – and some, we’ve never heard of. Get over it.
As for the meaning of the words, all I can say is look it up.
As a kid, whenever I came across a word I didn’t know (a frequent occurrence) I’d look it up with the dictionary my parents kindly bought me for my birthday. These days, I’d probably just whip out my smartphone but it doesn’t matter how you get the answer as long as you get it. And the important thing is curiosity.
That, I sense, is what the naysayer brigade really fears, that there might be those among us with a genuine intellectual curiosity about the world around them – and that it all starts with language.
Heaven forbid we don’t all sing from the same linguistic hymn sheet, describing each experience in the same identi-kit fashion as the next person.
When it comes to it, the words we use are fluid and evolving all the time – most of us accept this in principle even if it doesn’t trouble us much on a day to day level.
So, let’s not lose sight of the richness of our language in all its guises, the obscure, the colourful, the unusual and the seldom-heard.
Whether we like it or not, there are big ideas in this world of ours and sometimes big words really are just what we need to convey them to others.