Using words

My friend Monica used the word “prophylactic” in its classical sense (meaning “preventative”) the other day and it got me thinking about using words and the flack I occasionally take for my vocabulary. When you read a lot, you can’t avoid learning lots of words. When you write, it’s an occupational hazard. And it just so happens that I am a fan of words and have a natural attraction to them. Yet if I am in a meeting at work and use a word like “opprobrious”, it can stop the meeting cold, which surprises me. Didn’t anyone else in the room ever take the SATs?  I generally get one of two reactions:

  1. The oooh, that’s an impressive word, I’m going to have to look that up, reaction; OR
  2. Well what the hell does that mean and why don’t you just say what it means instead of using a fancy word. Force me to go look something up online, boy I’ll tellya…

And it often seems like I get the second reaction much more frequently than the first. The fact is that I try to use the most appropriate word to convey my meaning. But more to the point, English has a lot of words and way back when I took the SATs, it seemed like I had to memorize all of them. Not one to waste an experience, I kind of made a promise to myself that I wasn’t simply going to learn all of these words for the sake of a test and then forget them the next day. I was going to use them, by god! If the producers of standardized tests think that I should know the meanings of words like “meretricious” and “contumely”, well, then I was not only going to know them, but use them. And serves them right, too, for forcing them on me in the first place.

Still, it seems like I often get a negative reaction to using a full vocabulary, as if using the words you learn is a sign of pretentiousness or something. To me it is simply a sign of memorization, no different from the fellow who can reel off baseball statistics from memory. No one complains about that guy.

The one place where I am more careful about my vocabulary is in my writing, but in that case, it is more due to the fact that written English is a different beast from spoken English, and in fiction, some of the words that I would use in conversation would only serve to confuse the story.

Anyway, I applaud Monica for her sagacity in diction the other day. I wish more people enjoyed words as much as we do.


  1. We use a full vocabulary not only between the adults in the household but also with the kids. I have been known to tell Muffin and/or Squeaker that they are redolent. In my mind, there is no reason to curb my vocabulary around my kids, and if it means they learn bigger words sooner, I’m fine with that.

    (They can now both say “opposite,” which is their first three-syllable word. Not bad for 18 months, say I.)

    1. Nomi, I am similar around the Little Man. Furthermore, while he might mispronounce a word now and then (he often says, “Me-me” instead of “milk”) we always try to use the correct word, hoping eventually he will catch on. Sometimes I will break trickier words down for him. He knows what an “elephant” is–he can point one out; but he can’t say the word yet, so I say, “ellie” and he now says that when he sees is. As his vocabulary develops, I’m sure he’ll have no trouble with the full word.

      “Opposite” is impressive. I don’t this the Little Man has any 3-syllable words yet. Lots of two-syllable words, foremost being “Mommy”, followed closely by “Cracker”, “Candy” and “Soda”. 🙂


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