On vocabulary, words both big and small…

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As yet another child of mine looks towards taking the SATs, my mind shoots in the direction of vocabulary. I’m not a big-word person. I prefer to make my point in simple sentences. Maybe it has to do with raising children and directing them through the maze of good and bad behavior, but I think kids, and people, respond better to a simpler vocabulary. There’s no question in my mind that the phrase, “that’s no good,” used hundreds of times a day when our children were little, works a lot better than, “your activities here will have a detrimental effect on your immediate surroundings and will guarantee you confinement on the upper level of our abode.” Believe me, maybe that child would have scored a perfect SAT years later if I had talked like that. But the little boy ready to throw the Hot Wheels car across the room would never have waited for me to spit that out, and I would have been assessing the ding in the wall or the fast-growing bump on a brother’s head.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate big or unusual words when they really serve to make a point. I like a challenging crossword puzzle and know that having a broad vocabulary will absolutely help kids do well in school and on those oh-so-important SATs. But knowing the words and using them in everyday life are two different things.

I wrote a paper in college and, in an effort to jazz it up, I sat with a Thesaurus and looked up what I thought were some good substitute words. Instead of “fancy,” I decided to use the word “rococo,” having no idea I was suddenly talking about an 18th-century European style of art and architecture. I felt pretty good about my paper until I got it back with a stinging comment in the margin. Of course, I neither knew the word “rococo” nor understood how to use it, so I deserved being called out.

A few years ago, I helped another son memorize vocabulary for the SATs. Over and over, we practiced. We laughed over a lot of the words and how they would never make it into everyday conversation, especially when we got to the word, “jingoism.” Or so we thought. How would a person work that into a discussion? A few weeks later, to our disbelief, we heard a well-known sports analyst slip it into a debate he was having with another well-known analyst…for effect. But the analyst was not even close to talking about extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy. He was using the word to impress. And we caught it! I’m not sure jingoism came up on the SATs that year, but it didn’t matter. The result? Word definition permanently etched.

As for me speaking rococo, ever again, don’t count on it, but that doesn’t rule out using it on the Scrabble board!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

21 thoughts on “On vocabulary, words both big and small…

  1. I’m a terrible word snob and know I love using long words – even to the extent of of saying I was ‘sesquipedalian’ to an aunt who froze me out, quite rightly, with ‘and you’re a no good know it all too’! And by telling that story I’m just re-proving my point!!

  2. As a reader, long words I don’t understand pull me out of the story, and too many of them will make me set the book aside. I like to stretch my mind, but prefer to save it for crosswords, lol

    1. I agree, Jacquie. A quote by Anne Tyler comes to mind … “But what I hope for in a book – either one that I write or one that I read – is transparency. I want the story to shine through. I don’t want to think of the writer.”

      1. Hi Karen – that’s a great quote. I’m not promoting simple-minded thinking, but I much prefer a clear expression of thoughts. Great writers can tell complex stories using regular language – that’s the trick. I do meander into the complicated books now and then (I’m reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson right now and her stories are very layered, but the vocabulary isn’t over the top). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Like TanGental, I too have been guilty of sesquipedianism. It took me a long time to realize that it’s something of a tic, and rather than fostering communication, it distances others. Still, I loves me a good, long word now and again 🙂

    1. Hi Jill. Yes, I don’t like to get too bogged down with heavy vocabulary. It reminds me of taking French in college and having to look up every word I read, never knowing what the heck was happening! As for the SATs – well I guess it’s one of those rites of passage…Hope you’re having a great day and that there are signs of spring down south. Nothing but snow and cold temps here!

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head. Words are important and big words can be very impressive as well as descriptive. However, it’s all about how they’re strung together.
    (Funny thing, having spent most of my life as a professional musician, I learned about style periods rather young, so rococo has been in my bailiwick for eons.)

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for stopping by. As I said, I do like different words, but not if a simpler one can make just as good, or even better, point. I think I’d be afraid to use “rococo” in a sentence. I don’t think I saved that college paper. I’m pretty sure it’s in my Hall of Shame!

  5. I love learning big and unusual words, but I agree that for the most part, they can be a distraction rather than an enhancement when it comes to clear, effective writing. That’s certainly true in my work life! You gave me shudders talking about SATs — my “baby” is starting a prep class this month and will be taking the test in May. He’s so unmotivated… so I’ll probably have to more or less sit on him to get him to study!

  6. My guess is you tend to use simple words because you’re a writer, and writers know that when you use a word your readers don’t understand, they aren’t going to react well. But like you, I also enjoy a good crossword puzzle because it is a chance to expand our vocabularies. We may use the simple words more, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the big, complex and rare ones!

  7. I do believe, Barbara, that I have mentioned on my blog that I used to read Dickens with a dictionary when I was 12. I always like his stories but I didn’t understand all the words. Words like countenance and altercation have stayed with me always.

    1. Hi Robbie – the only full Charles Dickens book I have read is A Tale of Two Cities which I thought was excellent. There’s some big vocabulary in it, for sure! Thanks for commenting 🙂

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