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.