When I was in high school, people often said, “You use too many big words.” This was not a compliment; it was a condemnation.
Where I grew up, anyone whose knowledge seemed in excess of what was strictly necessary was called a “show-off,” “know-it-all” or one of a series of swear words that did not directly apply to the situation but were designed to hurt.
Unfortunately for me language and literature were not on the list of things it was “cool” to know about. Leisure reading was even less cool. It was the social equivalent of having a serious body odor problem.
I did what all language learners do: I would read a new word, deduce its meaning from the context or, if that wasn’t possible, I would consult a dictionary.
Eventually, I would use the new word in conversation to make it a permanent part of my vocabulary.
For me, it wasn’t a matter of showing off or sounding smart. Words fascinated me. The more words you know, the more ways you can express yourself. I tried to explain that to my peers.
But it would come back: “You use too many big words.” People would say it even if the word I used wasn’t particularly long.
I think what my classmates usually meant was, “I don’t know what that word means.” The correct response to not knowing what a word means is to ask, but for high schoolers it’s easier to insult the person who made you feel ignorant than to confront the ignorance itself.
Last week, the specter from high school returned. I was talking to a friend when she said, “You use too many big words!”
I graduated from high school over a decade ago, and suddenly I felt like I was standing in front of my locker before seventh period science.
I wasn’t successful in high school, and I doubt that will change now, but this is a point on which I cannot be silent: We need to have respect for our language.
Respect for our language doesn’t mean randomly inserting “big words” into conversations or papers to sound smart. All that does is remove your voice.
Respect for our language means pushing the boundaries of our vocabularies, not to pass a test, but to relish the joy, and fulfill the potential that exists in using language well.
A few weeks ago I was introduced to the word “absquatulate.” It means, “to leave abruptly.” Say it out loud and think about what it feels like in your mouth: ab-SQUAT-chew-late.
It has the same “ab” that is in “absence” that means “away from.” The “squat” is exactly what you think it is, to hunch down. The “ulate” is the same as “perambulate” which means “to walk around.”
This is not a word I’m going to use in everyday conversation, but that’s irrelevant.
A word doesn’t have to be practical in order to have value. It can have value simply because it’s fun to say or because it has a funny history (look up floccinaucihilipilification on worldwidewords.org).
No word is too big or too small. It is the meaning we give them and the way we use them that is important.