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Using big words

The limnery goes on and on. I’m going to spare you links to the previous posts over the minor uproar that the appearance of limn in a Sun headline provoked, but I do want to point you to an article in The Boston Globe by the always-perceptive Erin McKean.

Her point, and it is well taken, that there is such a pervasive cultural phenomenon of equating extensive vocabularies with intelligence that some readers who encounter unfamiliar words immediately get defensive, as if the unfamiliar word is an accusation that they are not very smart.

Since I am not trained in psychology or psychiatry, their problems are not my problem.

But Ms. McKean touches a little uncomfortably close to home by pointing out that class of people who like to parade their learning: “[t]here’s no denying an element of showoffishness is present in many uses of rare words. It would be peculiar if the all-too-human desire for status — the motivation behind name-dropping, wearing luxury brands, listening to obscure bands, or checking in to velvet-rope places on Foursquare — didn’t manifest itself in word choice, as well.”

Fair point. But still …

Of wealth I am bereft. Of physical beauty I had no particular surplus even when young. Of fame I enjoy a certain dim glow among copy editors—a status not unlike that of a scapegrace younger son of a noble family who has been granted a minor military commission and dispatched to one of the fever islands of the Caribbean. What I have to display to the world is a word hoard built up over half a century of omnivorous reading. That’s all I’ve got, and I am of one mind with Max Bialystock: “If ya got it, baby, flaunt it!”


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 PM | | Comments (21)


Mr McIntyre, I couldn't agree more.

If I'm able---by accident of birth, or through years of diligent reading and writing---to effortlessly select just the word needed to convey a precise nuance, why should I discard that ability to preserve the comfort of my less-well-endowed fellows?

I don't whine about Drew Brees' superior ability to fling a touchdown pass, nor ask him to toss the occasional interception to spare my deflated ego.

Marker of intelligence or not, I still believe a wide and deep vocabulary is something to strive toward, and to be proud of.

If I'm able---by accident of birth, or through years of diligent reading and writing---to effortlessly select just the word needed to convey a precise nuance, why should I discard that ability to preserve the comfort of my less-well-endowed fellows?

Uh, because you are trying to communicate with that other fellow and if you use words he doesn't understand, your attempt at communication will be unsuccessful?

The real Drew Brees analogy is that even though he has a superior ability to fling a touchdown pass, he's smart enough to hand off when that is likely to produce the more successful result.

Sports analogies only go so far. As for failing to communicate because you used a word another doesn't understand -- how do you know whether someone will understand it until you use the word? And why assume not only ignorance, but incompetence, as well? I don't have a vocabulary worth bragging about, but I do know how to infer meaning from context or, failing that, how to look it up. Easy access to free online dictionaries makes such complaints pretty lame, I'd say.

As Tolkien pointed out about the word plenilune 'the time of the full moon', which appears in one of his poems, it's much better to learn a new word in a living context than dead and desiccated in a dictionary. The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies worldwide. That's an awful lot of people who have seen the word dwimmerlaik, which the OED last records in writing in 1450, and spelled demerlayke at that.

Thanks for the link to Erin McKean's article, Professor McI. I hope no one gets in a huff and demands to know who this Max Bialystok might be. (Google it, baby!)

I can see both points being made here. What ruffles my feathers is when someone uses a "big" word incorrectly. I was in a conference with one of my staff a few months ago when she said "You are always very condescending." I am fairly certain that she did not mean to compare me to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as described by the odious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and I believe that the word she wanted was considerate. At least I hope so!

Limn is one of those posh words that are more common in the US than UK. (I've seen 'glabrous' used in US texts: never in the UK.)

I don't think it could ever be used in a UK newspaper - whether headline or body copy.

We are all terribly dumbed-down. I just got a new computer with a screensaver of daily vocabulary builders, consisting of such words as "shuck" and "terminate."

Heaven help us.

::: hearty applause :::

Words are beautiful, and the shades of meaning among them are beautiful. No apology should be necessary for appreciating that fact!

I've long looked for an opportunity to use the word calumny. I've yet to have an opportunity to incorporate it gracefully in a sentence, but its day will come.

The amusing point about Bucky's post is that, although he uses it judiciously, Bucky has a remarkable vocabulary himself.

Having met you, Dahlink, I am absolutely sure the word your colleague meant was considerate!

Don't forget Erin McKean's last graph:

"It shouldn’t be too hard to broker a truce, here, though. If the word-lovers can agree to throw in an acknowledgment whenever we use a geason word — one that’s rare or extraordinary — and the word-avoiders can agree to be a little less impatient with us when we do (and not take it personally), then problem solved. And we can all just paint — or limn — a happier world."

Thanks very much, Eve--that means a lot coming from you! And I totally agree with you about Bucky.

The English language has such an embarrassment of riches available that it seems a shame not to exploit that to the hilt, especially since vocabulary is one of the few pleasures that still cost nothing.

I am a mill worker of words.

Newspapering is industrial writing.

There are people who use big or esoteric words just to show off, stop an argument they are losing or patronize others.If the best you can do is toss an arcane word at someone, you most likely aren't worth knowing or reading. If the word fits, by all means use it. If you have to search dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?)for a word to impress, you probably haven't much to offer. As for limn, I've seen it in print in scholarly writing,but never in a newspaper, and its use in conversation is rare. (I say, old sock, have you seen Blenkensopp's lovely limn in The Times?) I vote against it in a headline: it smacks of showing off, even if you assume most of your readers know its meaning.

A university roommate taught me the word "sesquipedalian," and Ypsilanti's answer to William F. Buckley Jr. knew the word when I tossed it at him.

This roommate went on to Harvard Law School and still doesn't shrink from wearing his "smatness" on his tongue.

If everyone abstained from using big words, they would die out. That would be a loss.

At back-to-school night last week, my son's civics teacher said the average middle schooler's vocabulary has declined 50% in the past 30 years. She didn't cite a source for that statistic, but I don't doubt it. Our readers know fewer and fewer words.

You can make do with a small vocabulary if you use "very" and "fricking" a very fricking lot.

Point to Patrick K. Lackey!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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