Words, Words, Words

I constantly have this argument with my friends, my coworkers and myself: Is it better to use a ten-dollar word when you could use a five-dollar one? Is it better to learn and teach new words in a context in which they’re correctly used and enrich the sentence, or is it better to make your text welcoming and easy to read?

I think the answer, like so much in life, depends.

What’s the point of using highfalutin vocabulary? Is it instinct? Is it to get one over on your friends? Or is it because no other word in English communicates what you mean as well?

And at what price? Comprehensibility might be one, but that can be overcome with a little effort. On the part of the writer, good context can mean so much. And on the part of the reader, there’s the dictionary. And so the question for the reader becomes, “Do I care enough about this word to look it up?” And, in turn, the question for the writer becomes, “Do I care that a bunch of readers will probably not understand what I wrote?”

There’s also the danger that the writer thinks he or she knows what a word means and uses it, but then — whoopsie. And this is made all the more complicated because the meanings of words evolve over time, now quicker than ever. I call this the High School Shakespeare Problem. When someone says, “She’s nice” (from Latin nescius, “ignorant, unaware,” first used in English to mean “foolish, frivolous”), was that an insult or a compliment?

Now, back to the writer. What is the point of not flaunting your best words? You could be writing for children or for people whose first language is not English. You could be writing on a topic you truly care about, and your first priority might be that the message gets through rather than that it gets through in a Lexus. Or you could simply want to make a nice present, so that readers enjoy their journey through your writing rather than have to slog through it.

But probably the most important question in this whole calculus is, who is your audience? It could be a child or an adult, a student or a professional, a woman, a man, or even yourself. And this is key. Writing to the wrong audience is frustrating for everyone — the reader dropping the article in disgust, the writer sniffling over how unappreciated his work is, the publication looking broodingly out from its balcony wondering why it decided to pursue this pitch in the first place. It’s tough.

Anyway, back to words. I love words. But I face reality when I have to, and the reality is this: No one cares what floccinaucinihilipilification is, and no one except a true devotee of the subject or their poor, abused students will read a piece of writing that repeatedly uses words that obscure. A piece of writing should be useful, and the human element that is the audience — unavoidable, capricious and strangely beautiful as it is — demands words it can understand.

And with all that, I still snuck some broccoli into your lasagna. You’re welcome.

Sarah Hinda Appelbaum

Mordechai Schiller responds:

I should start a new column: Advice to the Word-Lorn. In that spirit, I would advise that it’s never good to argue. Especially constantly. If you must argue, however, it is best to argue with yourself. Then, either way, you win.

As to your practical question, if you can get $10 a word for your writing, never settle for $5.

As you wisely said, the key question is whom you are writing to. (Save questions about prepositions for the end of the sentence.) In other words, why are you writing? James Joyce said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”

If that’s your demand, I wish you luck.

Usually, you’re better off listening to Pooh Bear:

“Rabbit,” said Pooh to himself, “I like talking to Rabbit. He talks about sensible things. He doesn’t use long, difficult words like Owl does. He uses short, easy words like ‘what about lunch?’ and ‘Help yourself, Pooh.’ I suppose I really ought to go and see Rabbit.”

Disclosure: I have been accused of being too highbrow in my column. I often worry about that. But writing a column on language, I have to give it its head — keep a loose rein and let it gallop where it wants to. I just let the column find its own readership and (mixed metaphor warning), like a good gift basket, I try to have something in there for everybody.

By the way, as is my wont (that’s a habit I will do, not something I won’t do) I looked up floccinaucinihilipilification. And, in my judgment, it’s worthless.