Using words

I take some occasional heat from friends, family and coworkers for my vocabulary. There are, it seems, times when I use a word that those around me are unfamiliar with. I am asked what the word means, and give the definition to the best of my ability and then try to move on. It is not always that easy. Sometimes, I am accused (mostly by close friends or family) of using a “fancy” word when another more common word would have suited. This is not at all my intention and I generally have two responses to this:

  1. I try to use words that precisely convey my meaning. Often times the word I chooses means exactly what I say, whereas substituting a simpler word subtracts from the meaning.
  2. What is the point of learning all of those SAT words if not to put them to practical use.

I sometimes get the feeling that people think I am joking when I make that remark about the SATs, but I am not. I try to put to some practical use everything I have learned. Else, what’s the point in learning it in the first place? There has to be more to learning than just grades and degrees.

This is on my mind today because I had the need to make use of the word “holographic” in its pre-modern sense this morning and hesitated to do so, thinking of the grief that people give me. A coworker had sent me an email which contained a scanned-in article upon which he’d made some handwritten comments. In forwarding the article to my boss and grandboss, I asked them to take particular note of the “holographic comments” in the article. Most people today are probably familiar with the term holographic as a trope of science fiction. But it has an even older definition that means “of or being a document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears.” Clearly the term “holographic” in this sense is a much more succinct description than a phrase such as “so-and-so’s handwritten comments.”

On another recent occasion, I was in a meeting in which a result was reported which I had more or less predicted some months ago. A jokingly referred to my “sagacity” in the matter in question, which seemed to divert the entire conversation into the meaning of the word. (It means “The quality of being discerning, sound in judgment, and farsighted; wisdom,” which is exactly what I was trying to convey.)

The English language is rich in words that allow for precise description. The more precise, the more clearly you think you are communicating, but the paradox is that others have to understand these words, too, and that doesn’t always seem to be the case, which is frustrating in the extreme. The question then becomes one of simplifying my language (and perhaps muddying up my message) by using alternate vocabulary, or using the words I choose and providing a definition if asked.

I sometimes get the sense from people that using a full vocabulary is an attempt to show off my knowledge of words, and while that is a reasonable conclusion to draw, it is not my intent. My intent is to use the best word to describe my meaning. What purpose could I possibly have in showing off my knowledge of words, which believe me is far inferior to some of the people I’ve met in recent years.

So I struggle, sometimes, with my word choice, but I generally err on the side of using the best word to describe my meaning and ridicule be damned. What tends to push me over the edge, even more than the fact that the word I chose is accurate, is the fact that I had to spend countless weeks memorizing long lists of words when studying for the SAT and I swore to myself at the time that if I was investing such vast quantities of energy into the project, it wouldn’t be forgotten when the test was over and the results were in.

Does anyone else out there have this problem? How do you deal with it?


  1. I do it all the time, get razzed for it, and take it as a point of pride.

    For example, I was introducing the word “prurient” to Shaun Ferrell and Bryan Thomas Schmidt on twitter the other day in talking about Game of Thrones.

    And at work, they like my “wordsmithing”. Early on, I introduced them to the word “defenestration”. They haven’t forgotten it…

  2. I’ve dealt with this my whole life. The words I use depend a lot on the people I’m with. However, at this point everybody knows I’m a writer and they just roll with it. Some people ask about the words they don’t know, in which case I explain. Other people don’t say anything at all and guess what I’m getting at (sometimes accurately!). We forge ahead!

  3. Perhaps it’s time to start hanging out with a higher class of friends.

    I use big words all the time, and hardly anyone bats an eye. (It does happen, though. A few years back my vet seemed puzzled when I asked if my pet’s test results were anomalous (deviating from what is standard, normal, or expected).)


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