July 30
I'm a lawyer in my past life, who got the kids through college and decided to try something different and a little more fun. A used book store sounded like a good idea, so that's where I am for now. I just hadn't counted on a recession or E-readers and am a little afraid there's going to be a third act. In the meantime, I have plenty to read and a little time to write. Not a bad way to spend a day.


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MAY 16, 2012 11:14AM

Losing My Big Words

Rate: 35 Flag

I re-read one of my posts the other night and was surprised to see that the biggest word I used was eight letters long--not counting a few words with endings like "-ing," which would have brought me up to eleven. But that seemed unfair. The average was about five letters. I'm pretty sure that, if I had had the nerve to check, I would have found that I was writing at about a fifth grade level.

Partly because there were a lot of sentences starting with "and" and "but," some imcomplete sentences used for emphasis, and a rather random placement of commas. But also because I didn't find a single word that I might have felt compelled to look up in the dictionary to ensure I was using it right. I probably did look up my biggest word, which was "apparently," but that was for spelling. I have to look that one up every single time.

None of this would bother me too much except that there was a time not too long ago that I was all about the big words. The "hereinbefores" and "thenceforths" and "aforementioneds" of legalese sent my letter count soaring. Not to mention all those other big words that I didn't know how to pronounce, but liked to include in my legal writing for show--always throwing in a few obscure Latin phrases for good measure.

But, alas, it appears that I lost more than a paycheck when I left the legal world behind.  I seem to have lost my big words too.

I'm trying to decide if this is a good thing. Am I better off sticking to the basics, or am I losing something in the translation by saying "no contest" instead of "nolo contendere"?  Am I making myself clearer by sticking to the little words or am I obnubilating the points I'm trying to make by not using words that are more specific? (And, yes, I did have to look up "obnubilating," but weren't you impressed?)

I remember when I used to tell my kids to "use your words." And I can't help but wonder if I shouldn't start telling myself to "use my big words."

After all, wouldn't an EP be more likely if this post was titled "The Loss of Lexiphanicism" instead of "Losing My Big Words"? Wouldn't I get more views and comments by using the bigger word--even if for no other reason than people wouldn't know what it was about and would drop by thinking it just might be another slam on Romney? Can I ever be a successful writer if I don't send a single person in search of a dictionary? 

I read the memoir of Christopher Buckley recently and found myself looking for a dictionary, a history book, or an atlas every other page. Sometimes all three. I couldn't help but be impressed and came away thinking that his classical education at Portsmouth Abbey School might have been just a smidge better than my four years at the local public high school. And that maybe I should try following his lead and work an occassional "vouchsafed" into my posts. Maybe even borrow his "froideur" or "postprandial." After all, what do I have to lose other than the few minutes it will take me to look them up again.

Although, I guess I might lose some of those readers from my old high school.

It's a conundrum. (Whoah! Nine letters! It might all be coming back!) The question is, should I let it or should I fight it?

I'm pulling my hair out trying to decide this one. Or, maybe I should say, falling prey to my trichotillomania. 

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Nice. Big words do have their place but miniature ones can be efficacious at times too.
One or two big words cleverly placed can be a treat. Chris Buckley's old man made sure every column he wrote had at least one word that practically everybody had to break open the unabridged to define. I learned a lot of good big 'uns that way. Never mastered "vouchsafe," despite having looked it up or Googled it every time I come across it. I'm heading over to Google to do just that right now...
I have stopped reading some "economic" posts by favorite columnists as they feel that in order to make a point they have to use elusive/archaic language. Plain talking works for me. I also prefer short sentences. It's all about the message...can't understand it? No message there. :)

How about...Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis???
According to Google....longest word in English language.
Conundrum. :)

One of my favorites: autoerotic asphyxia

I'd filed this one away when I was 18 or so (I used to know some strange people) and was able to pull it out again when some stupid British peer offed himself this way in the early 1990s.
Conundrum indeed.
Vonnegut's much quoted rules on writing;
"3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers."

Who is reading you, and what do you want to say?
There are only certain times of the day
when i can process the big words...
i know more than most people, yet i find myself using them
with trepidation.
The damn worst thing as a writer is to be misunderstood,
i have found.
Chicken mentions vouchsafe. I like that one.
it means: "to grant or give, as by favor, graciousness,
or condescension:
to vouchsafe a reply to a question."

it is not an easy word to master, though, with Chicken
being so old, i thought maybe he mighta gotten it.

The efficacious quality of a trope, or a simile, or a metaphor
is never to be ignored, but these usually come
in plain speak.

There is alot which you can do with the basic vernacular.
This is what i call, grandly, the 'Syntactic imperative'.

Syntax is where it is at.
It's conundrum.

Good luck with the bookstore!
Use small words. Tink and I are idiots.
Big words, schmigwords - who cares as long as the message is clear? Your message is very clear. IDK, prolly clearer'n most. K?
trichotillomania - I get that mixed up with a bacteria pigs used to pass on ;>
Yeah, really small words, I r lucky to know my own name!! ~:D
If you want to keep antecedents straight, I find "hereinbesmidge" is a useful construction.
Mary--Darn you. You sent me to the dictionary.
Chicken Maaan--Yeah, I think Chris may have gotten it from his "Pup." He does seem to have tempered it a little better. I might have had an easier time if he didn't talk about sailing so much.
Ande--I'm not even going to try and pronounce that one. Who on earth thought that was a good idea?
V.--It does have a nice sound to it.
James--I knew there was a reason I have a poster of Vonnegut. Hold on a minute...... you sent me to the dictionary there at the end.
SVC--I'm claiming that one as a typo. Thanks for the catch.
ha, what mary said!
nahhh...stay wit da small ones...quicker ta read....
A small word is best if it delivers a big punch.
More of them would be better except in the case where fewer of them would be.
I love this post - I think the way words are weaved together to create the whole is more important - you do that well jl
Ha! I'm still giggling at this one. Very well done. ... It's only a fifth-grade level if you aren't making any grand points about life. Your work is never simplistic (whoa!), and is always enchanting (double whoa).
I just love big words...and "conundrum" is one of my favorites! However, I totally understand the spastic and obfuscatory nature of all those "hereinbefores" of classical legal writing. Yeccchhhhh! I do more than my share of legal writing, in fact, since in our small prosecuting office, I handle many of the appeals (by choice, I might add!). I was lucky to bring a journalism background to the table, though, and so (and I even lecture on this once in a while to law students) my starting position is that it is perfectly acceptable in legal writing to (1) apply common sense and logic to the facts at hand and (2) use short, direct sentences. Like "the other guy is wrong." Or "this argument is a red herring." "This argument is a smokescreen" is another favorite. If I'm feeling particularly generous, I may phrase my difference of opinion as "the other side is mistaken." But yeah, I think "hereinbefore" needs to be retired along with the old Perry Mason reruns.
Scanner--Does Tink know you said this?
Nilesite--I'm kinda liking schmigwords. It has a ring to it. And it's long.
Oregami--It's possible I got it wrong--that's what happens with the big words sometimes.
Tink--Did you see what Scanner said?
Con--How did I miss that one? Watch for it.
jlsathre--I spend my life editing the prose of long-winded over-educated academics down into sentences that real people can read.

Chuck the big words. No one needs them. Not even the academics.
I think you got the EP in the bag anyway. Funny post. I'd throw in a big word here, but can't think of one at the moment. I recently had a commenter (commentator?) suggest I might be an Atavist. I looked it up and when I found out what it meant I used it on my business card. R
Steel--I think I'm with you.
Daisy--Ditto on my comment to Mary.
alsoknown--I thing I've got it--lots of little words, then edit half of them out.
LammChops--Thank you.
Deborah--Thank you too. I like giggles.
Mary--I'm with you. Legal writing is the worst--and doesn't need to be.
Froggy--Let me know if I ever cross back over.
This is a great question for many writers. I think what it comes down to is what you want to accomplish. If you want to write for yourself or for a certain percentage of the population that understands these words or is willing to look them up - or if you need to use them to make a particular point - then why not. But I feel like, if you want your writing to touch a large number of people, if your focus is to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible, there's not necessarily a need for "big words", per se. Personally, I will include a "big word" if it just perfectly fits what I want to say, but otherwise I don't think about it too much. I want to share stories and ideas, and to do that I need to use the English I'm most comfortable with - and that most readers are probably most comfortable with, too. I think it's probably always been this way for a majority of writers. Even 19th century authors, masters of big words and long phrases, only used these either because they served a particular function and would be understood by a majority of readers, or because they made a difference in how much money their writing would earn them (i.e., being paid by the page, word, etc).
In my humble opinion "...legalese..." and the literary and intellectual pretension of vocabulary are the bane of good writing... I never got past the first chapter of the Da Vinci Code because Dan Brown was so obviously displaying how much he knew... Akiva Goldsman's adapted screenplay with Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon was so much better than Brown's novel, because it didn't talk down to the viewer/reader... straight talk dialogue and picturesque description always works better than pretentious BS. Nothing wrong with using the appropriate word no matter how many syllables, but arcane and pedantic language and formal grammar is a pretention up with which I do not put!
Perhaps Jefferson's ruling to never use two words when one would do can also be said to apply where the number of one's syllables is concerned.
After all, clarity can often best be achieved through brevity.
Nice post.
Tongue in cheek keep the words short as well as the sentences as a large percentage of americans (and not only) have difficulty understanding what they read and cannot put any intelligible (my big word!) phrase together....but who cares:)?
I like big words, like "defenestration". It behooves one to use them to browbeat the hoi polloi, dontchaknow?
When in doubt, perspecuity rules. A dictionary is seldom needed with great authors.
I'm with Mary. It depends on your intention (more than 5 letters) and your audience, dare I say.
Gerald--I'm off to look up Atavist. Maybe I can use it too.
Alysa--I'm pretty much in agreement with you. Particularly since I write for myself.
jmac--Lawyers are some of the worst offenders but, as you note, not the only ones.
Poor Woman--Sounds like a good rule to me. I think I've been following it.
"atavist", who aint?
some are more adept atavists than others, as is our dear Gerald.

"1.the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.
an individual embodying such a reversion.
reversion to an earlier type; throwback. "

This is easy to do. Just be a gentleman of letters and courting and politesse.

The eye of a lady may be found.

She who along with u worries over the post apocalyptic
landscape of vulgar
instinctive behavior, something we cherish
as americans..........................
roberto--I do pretty well with the short sentences. Short paragraphs too.
ccdarling--"Defenestration" is a good one--14 letters.
beauty--I almost went for the dictionary with perspecuity, but I think I figured it out.
Erica--Those are good guides--as long as they match up.
sesquipedalia of the day: sesquipedalia, meaning very long words. Can I have that with a side of fries?

jl, you have a way with words and your posts are so enjoyable, I for one hope you keep it up!
James--No more going to the dictionary for me. I'm just going to PM you.
Asia--Good one. Your fries are on the way.
I think being earthy is best. Know your audience. No more lawyers. Bloggers are fast readers and a little careless. We have lots of miles to cover. I love your posts.
By the way, have you seen the film "Love Happens?" ... Jennifer Aniston plays a woman who likes long, obscure words.
Sesquipedalian: A person who uses long words. The antonyms are just as grandiloquent: monosyllabic, brachysyllabic, brief, terse, laconic. ... By the way, journalists love it when legal briefs and other lawyerly documents are, indeed, brief and well-written in clear, clean, plain English. It helps us meet deadlines. Kudos to lawyers who are also good writers!
Legalese combines the worst aspects of: the exactitude of philosophical writing, restricting the audience due to obscure Terms of Art, the excessive rhetoric of a pompous bloviator, the selective presentation of facts worthy of a political propagandist and the intentional opaqueness of a cornered bullshit artist. (See Exhibit A, "Credit Card Service Agreement," attached hereto and made a part thereof)

Think of it as your brain doing a spring cleaning to get rid of the legalese.
It behooved me to approach this post with a modicum of trepidation; serendipitously, I was please to see that it's not the size of the word in the writing; it's the size of the writing in the words. Or, put another way: it ain't geometry, it's poetry. Good job, fal.
I think it was your James Baldwin who set the bar for me, when it came to big words.
He didn't use any.
zanelle--Thank you. I think you're right.
Deborah--I haven't seen it, but will check it out. I always tried hard to make my briefs readable and would go back and edit out a whole bunch of words. "However" wasn't a big word, but it seemed to be one I was pretty attached to.
John--"It ain't geometry." I like that.
Kim--He's my kind of guy.
I really don't think big words are necessary to write a really good story. I like descriptive phrases much more ./r
Big words are for politely telling someone to go stuff themselves.
[Hands in the air in supplication to another person]
"Such big words. We-hee are but simply pyrates, m'Lady."

"I want you to stop firing on the town and leave the people in safety."

"We are disinclined to acquiesce to your request." [pause]
"Means, 'no.' "

Use it the way it suits you best. I personally like to keep using the fifty cent and two dollar words from time to time, but not such that I hope I end up sounding more obscure and less engaging. There's you; then there's your audience. You shouldn't pander to them by giving them everything they expect and not make them work. That said, you do have to reach them in the first place.

And whereinsofar and insasmuch that the circumstances befit the exigency of the situation, I am certain that lexicographical references abound within the confines of any domestic domicile or habitary residence.

Take your pick.
Christine--I agree.
phyllis--There are occasions that call for that too.
dunniteowl--I pick door #2, but was laughing at numbers 1 and 3.
Never say trousers when you can say pants--that's what my dad used to say.