On “big words”

So, this post by Paula Durbin Westby got me thinking on something utterly unrelated to the boycott: Big words, and my use thereof.

Like Paula, and the young man she describes in her post, I started to read at a very young age. Now, they would call a kid like me “hyperlexic” – I’m fairly sure I knew how to read before I knew how to talk. I used to read the dictionary. I speak accordingly. It’s not uncommon for me to pick more esoteric vocabulary over common words because the more common word doesn’t mean precisely what I was trying to convey whereas the less common word does.

People used to think that I was using “big words” to impress. That I was “trying to seem smart,” or that I was showing off. (FYI: Asking someone if they think you come off as pretentious in such a situation will just aggravate them and seem to prove their point). I wasn’t. I don’t. I use “big words” unconsciously, because it’s the first word that comes to mind for what I’m trying to say, and also because I’m trying to be as clear and precise as possible in my speech. When I was a kid, my teachers would joke that they had to carry around a dictionary when I was in class. More recently, I’ve had coworkers stare at me blankly when I use words they’re not familiar with, and it’s not uncommon at all for the kids in my martial arts class to stare at me blankly and go, “Huh? I don’t know what that word means. I’m [age]. I don’t know those big words.”

Being a person who reaches instinctively for “infuriating” over “makes me so angry” or “defenestrate” over “throw out the window,” and who has favorite words (defenestrate among them) comes with trouble. Partly because, as I said, people assume you’re being pretentious when you use big words. Partly because people don’t understand what you’re saying and so get frustrated and angry, and partly because cognitive accessibility of communication is an important thing. Business buzzwordese gets me going, “Huh? What is this? I don’t understand.” unless I have the mental energy to spare to decipher it. So can poorly-written academic jargon.  Likewise, I’m sure my way of speaking (and writing) might do that to others – particularly to those who don’t have a vocabulary as large as mine.

And, partly, it’s troublesome because whenever I write, I have to read and re-read, and re-re-read to make sure that I’m not using words that will come off pretentious. When I speak, I have to mentally process my planned sentence and decide whether I really want that big word or if I could get away with a smaller one. It’s another one of my “normal people” mental emulator subroutines. And I usually fail. Because I literally can’t think of another way to say the thing I’m trying to say that is acceptably close in meaning to what I’m getting at fast enough to seem natural.

And even when I do think up another way of saying it, I might mess it up in another way. With non-verbal cues, like tone of voice or body language. Case in point: As a kid, I had a hell of a time with slang. Because my intonation would be off when I said it, so other kids would make fun of me for saying a slang term in a strange way rather than saying something was “fascinating” instead of “neat” or “cool”. As an adult, slang is still difficult, both in intonation and in appropriate times to use it. I sometimes forget and use internet slang at work, for example.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my language is all over the place. It’s an eclectic mix of rare words, anachronistic idioms, 90s kid slang and internet memes. And I do none of it to be pretentious or to try to sound smart – I just say it that way because that is the best way that my brain can think of at that moment to say what I want to say.


12 thoughts on “On “big words”

  1. alexforshaw says:

    Reading the dictionary while growing up, getting criticised for using “big words”, needing to choose the precise word to convey my meaning — oh yes, I know all of this so well. Always had an aversion to slang because it corrupted the meanings of words as I knew them, which played hell with my literal interpretations. And I have a habit of using pre-internet computer jargon that mystifies the youngsters among my colleagues. I think it’s only fair because they use contemporary slang that I struggle with!

  2. autisticook says:

    My situation is even more fun, in that I started to read a LOT of books in English long before I had the opportunity to have conversations with native speakers, either in person or online. So my English is literally bookish, often full of quaint and anachronistic words.

    The first time I visited the UK on my own, to spend time with a friend who was there on an exchange program, I used the word inebriated. As we were leaving the pub. To describe my own state at that particular moment. I was very grateful that one native speaker took the time to correct me on my pronunciation, because I’d only seen the word written down. It got a lot of laughs from the rest of the group.

  3. notesoncrazy says:

    Defenestrate is my all time favorite word. “Conflagration” comes in second, if you were wondering. Sometimes I actually hope that someone will start a forest fire by throwing a cigarette out their car window (no I don’t really want there to be a forest fire…) because then I could use both in the same sentence in casual conversation and then I could die happy.

  4. Defenestrate is a fun one. I used to get the same accusation at times. Sometimes I still do. The weirdest time was on WoW trade chat, when I was mocked for RPing — on an RP server, no less. (Welcome to WoW.) I have a similar filter, which sometimes causes something resembling a stammer as I try to swap words out on the fly.

    Depending on the context, I’ve stopped bothering. Though apparently, we’re able to switch to a helpful register when someone else is having trouble processing/accessing language. Possibly because we sometimes get that problem ourselves. Though, in the some cases, we end up sounding like we “swallowed a dictionary,” because we can no longer remember the simpler words.

  5. I was pretty much saying “yes, yes, yes” internally the entire time while reading this post. I also use many “big words” in everyday speech for the same reason you do: clarity. I can’t stand when people speak ambiguously, so I try to be as clear as possible in my own speech. I think that many common miscommunications could be avoided by simply using more precise language. And I loved reading the dictionary (and thesaurus – I love thesauruses so much) as a kid. People have teased me too for using “big words” or “sounding like a book”, and I couldn’t even figure out what words they meant. Thankfully the only person I talk to IRL on a daily basis is my boyfriend, who has a similarly large vocabulary despite being a non-native English speaker.

    I also can’t deal with slang, and I’ve stopped trying for the most part. New things like “this is the shit” or “that’s sick” or “dope” (all somehow indicate that something is good) make no sense to me.

    And defenestrate is a lovely word.

  6. Heh. The autistic protagonist of my mystery trilogy (Mapping Charlie, Forest for the Trees, Ambivalent Advocate), in the third book, is imagining an alphabetic sequence of ridiculous “dummy” books. Her favorite is “Defenestration for Dummies.” As for use of slang…. It was being ridiculed in 7th grade for non-understanding of slang that first made me aware that my school classmates were aware of me — and making fun of me. Before that, they were just a blur.

  7. Oh, yes!
    Shall we just defenestrate those who would piss on our lexicophiliac parades? LOL

  8. Kassiane says:

    Defenestrate is the best word ever.

    My language is a lot of ‘big words’ and a lot of “uh um that” noun free speech. Words are hard. At least the big ones are memorable and specific. (but when they’re used for other meanings, ones that I didn’t learn reading the dictionary, things are incomprehensible)

    • ischemgeek says:


      Also, yes on the language thing. My language varies between nearly fluent if a bit arcane and pedantic to “can’t get any words out” and everything in between, depending on my mood and what’s going on.

  9. yfiry says:

    oh wow i do this so much, and my sister will berate me every time if i do it in conversation with her. she’s of the opinion it’s because i want to sound smarter than the other person when asked to explain it, really it’s because i interpret everything very literally and i want my speech to be as precise and right as possible, so i will attempt to choose the most perfect word i can think of at any point. (also helps me to learn new words and concepts by practicing them.) i’m also bad at pre-assessing whether the person in question knows the word i’m about to use and i already take too long to formulate responses. i dont really get why people are bothered by it – i am always willing to clarify when asked, and i do not think you lesser for not knowing a word or phrase i use. if i was talking to someone, i would be glad for the opportunity to learn something new. i wish people wouldn’t assume i’m trying to make a point at them with how i speak, i’m almost never trying to make a point other than the literal meaning of the words, if i am i will make that explicit. though… i suppose this means i’ve been missing everyone else’s subtextual messages???

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