In defense of big, fancy words
“Avoid fancy words,” we read in the famous style guide, Strunk & White. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
Practitioners, not only advisers, concoct their work by the same principle. “I like what Hemingway says,” said French writer Emmanuel Carrère. “Like everyone, I know some big words, but I try my damnedest not to use them.”
But why all the hate for big words? Is it that our common lot of words is more than enough? Or is that they mean less than smaller ones?
I have rarely been able to understand the popular, anti-big-word sentiment among writers. Opponents come from all corners of the writing profession. They are often good writers, too. But it seems ill-advised for anyone to advise her peers to exclude a spectrum of the resources available to them.
Words are the rudiments of writing, and to dismiss them at the point which they come from the dictionary is an error. It is as if a carpenter at a conference were to announce, as a rule, that carpenters should avoid working with woods outside of those found in the typical lumberyard. There is no need to construct one’s work with bloodwood or buckeye, the speaker would say, not when your predictable lot of fir, pine, walnut, and the occasional mahogany will do.
I would extend this conceit even further, by remarking that even if an unusual wood were of an undesirable grain or difficult to work with, that to know its qualities is to be wiser, for everything that is available to us will have its use one day. If not for a table leg, then for an inlay. If not now, then later.
The same goes for writing. A word may not fit in our next forty essays, but it may come in handy for our forty-first. This is prudence. Of Shakespeare’s 28,289-word lexicon, 43 percent are used only once.
Today, content is everywhere; its ability to surprise us only weakens. The same style-guide writers who advise us to avoid big words will tell us to avoid clichés, the latter on the grounds that it they render prose less vivid and rewarding. These tenets — anti–big words and anti-cliché — do not live in harmony. We may avoid humdrum writing with a rich, precise vocabulary in the same way we do so by piercing clichés with our own original phrasing.
Treat all words the same. They demand nothing more than to be employed properly. Do not misuse marmoreal anymore than you would misuse toilet. So what if the reader is unfamiliar? The harm of using a large, scary word only shrinks in a world of instant reference. What is it to use an “obscure” word, when shedding light on it is as easy as switching browser tabs and typing it in?
In the end, the real barrier keeping big words out of our common prose may come down to taste, or rather, misconception. We like our content to be chummy, conversational, talking to us like it’s wrapping its arms over the crest rail of a chair. By this ethos, writing should imitate speech, and by all accounts should eschew formality. This is at odds with writing’s true nature, and it often composed through great acts of calculation and refinement, though it may wear the guise of carelessness and spontaneity.
But that is not what is most disingenuous about the crusade for personable writing, the kind that considers it best to avoid big, troublesome words. I agree that good writing should be, in some way, like a friend. But I disagree about what it looks like in practice. A true friend is not so because she is accessible, but because in being her full, rich self, she also enriches us.
And sometimes, this involves being sent to the dictionary.
Contributed by Matt Reimann.