A reader contacted me this week to help water my dry spell and to seek my views on the question of pretentious writing.
She offered four examples of what she believes are showy words used by “stuffy” writers; some, she claims, are without meaning. The word samples she offered were penultimate, eponymous, jocund and diktat.
Of those, I knew two.
I saw a Facebook or Twitter post recently that said, “Never use a long word when a shorter one will do,” a quote I believe is attributed to George Orwell.
It’s a good piece of advice, but I’m not sure I buy into it 100 percent.
Sure, I believe it’s always good to use simple language to get one’s point across. Often the fewer syllables the better. At the same time, I delight in learning new words—and using them. I was once told by an employer to quit using phrases the average Joe wouldn’t know right off the bat. I’m still a little grumpy about that.
My everyday stainless steel flatware, which I bought at Sears in 1984, still works just fine. But every now and then, I enjoy getting out the Reed & Barton silver. It’s as ornate and showy and unnecessary as any fancy language thrown about in The New Yorker. But it’s there and it’s beautiful. Why not use it?
My reader cited The New Yorker’s review of the movie Larry Crowne as she pondered the necessity of diktat, which I learned is a harsh penalty. The review said, “During Larry’s midlife crisis, the world is little more than an extended version of the cheerful diktat that disaster is merely opportunity in disguise.” I think that’s a stretch. Perhaps I misunderstand the definition. I’m going with the reader on this one.
Jocund is a nice word, though I’ve never used it. I might try it out, the next time I need to describe someone who is marked by lively mirthfulness. Come to think of it, I might prefer lively mirthfulness.
Eponymous, giving one’s name to a tribe or place, isn’t a word for which I’ve ever had a need. You?
Penultimate means next to last and I remember the day in college when I first learned it. I find it quite descriptive and know of no synonym. I’m keeping it.
However, I would vote penultimate most misused.
The note from the reader got me thinking about words people misuse when they’re being pretentious; I have a couple of examples. To these people, never use a short word when a longer one will do (even if you use it incorrectly).
I’ve heard people use penultimate as if it meant super-ultimate, or the very best. I once heard a person say, “They have the penultimate thick crust pizza.” That might be true, if there is one left in the oven.
A colleague once apologized to me for putting me in “an awkward juxtaposition.”
I bet you have some funny examples of your own, or responses to my reader who wants to know, why all the fluff?
In the meantime, I come back to silverware. It’s okay to break out the fancy knives and forks for the right occasion, as long as you put them in the proper places on the table. And provided you’re not using them just to show off and make your guests feel uncomfortable.
15 responses to “Fancy schmancy”
I’ve got mixed feelings about this.
For one thing, I do a daily vocabulary word on UhW, and the feature seems quite popular.
When I am occasionally forced to the dictionary by a word in a novel or news article, I go happily to learn what I’ve been missing. But then, I believe that what we can think is contingent upon what we can say; thus making a good vocabulary a powerful cognitive tool.
My quandary is this: do we dumb down our writing to reach a certain level of reader, or do we challenge our readers to think and expand their horizons?
I do not believe in tossing in big words just to befuddle the reader. That is pretentious, and borders on being mean-spirited.
On the other hand, using a handful of small words to convey a concept that is readily expressed in a single–if perhaps less well-used–word feels like a cop-out to me.
Shouldn’t the serious writer always do his or her best to convey a message? Shouldn’t we represent ourselves honestly? …or should we hide our light, as they say?
Scott, I could not agree more. My argument back to that employer was precisely, that challenging readers to think and expand their horizons. After all, isn’t this what we are challenging them to do in the rest of the business? Isn’t that good leadership?
The lastest word I saw that seemed pretentious: PRETERNATURAL
1: existing outside of nature
Used in a book by an author who I used to like quite a bit. In her more recent books she has lost the art of writing in the different voices of her characters. They now all speak the same, which drives me nuts. Each of her characters says, “I know, right?” frequently and it is not in keeping with their different personalities. That is what happens when an author gets popular and is pushed to churn out more books quickly rather than having his/her work tightly edited.
Amen, Emily! I promise, if I ever become a famous writer, no matter the demand for output, I won’t stoop to that.
I am reminded of a dictum that I like:
K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid).
That is only directed at myself!
Using more precise vocabulary in context is a great way to expose others to new words without intimidating them. In that way, they are approachable and more likely to catch on.
Instead of writing: “Harry Potter, the hero of the movie with the same name, faces his final battle.” it is more elegant to write: “The eponymous hero of the movie ‘Harry Potter’…. This phrasing can also be used for Athena (Athens), Jane Eyre (when discussing the novel) and the saints whose churches we were discussing yesterday!
I learned the value of penultimate and antepenultimate (as well as ultimate) when studying ancient Greek, as it is important to be able to refer precisely to syllables. In my opinion, “next-to-last” pretty clearly corresponds to penultimate, yet “second-to-last” is often used by people to mean penultimate when it should mean antepenultimate, whereas the “showier” words lack ambiguity. Nevertheless, I know that if I used “antepenultimate” in speech outside of an academic setting, listeners would think I was showing off, so I don’t. They probably wouldn’t understand me, either.
I just remembered one “fancy” word that I have used in writing for which I can find no suitable alternative: eschew. If I don’t like myself in yellow, I’m not exactly “shunning” yellow clothes. “Abstaining” would imply that yellow is bad for me, and I’m definitely not “boycotting” the color. I suppose “avoid” might be appropriate, but “eschew” seems entirely a mental action, whereas “avoid” feels as though it has a physical component.
Thanks for bringing up “eschew.” I should have thought of that one as I was writing this piece. The first I ever learned of the word was when a high school teacher wrote on the board: “Eschew obfuscation.” This pretty much says it all.
Personally, I would probably stay away from those words unless I have a stylistic or emotive reason for using them. Winston Churchill was a deft hand at ‘the shorter word’ and switching to long words to crank up special effects (e.g. wave-lapped = seagirt), and his style of writing has a good mix of the plain and everyday and the obfuscatory (after all, he was a politician).
Most of those words you cite (and other padding words) have long histories dating from the Middle Ages. What most people don’t realise is that those words hardly common until that dreadful time called Victorian era came into being, and everyone started dissing anyone with big words. The academic world is mostly stuck in Victorian English Hell – too many noun clusters and mixed metaphors: remember that apocryphal/spurious phrase “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities”?
‘Diktat’ is just German for the perfectly understandable English word ‘dictate’ (as a noun), and perfectly acceptable in political and philosophical writings. The New Yorker, however, was going a bit over the top with diktat in a movie review, for chris’ sakes.
Eponymous (ep-pin-nom-muss) is just another $5 word for ‘self-named’ or ‘self-titled’ – as in Trader Joe naming his shop Trader Joe’s. Unless we took Latin or Classical Greek at school (and I did, compulsorily), there are loads of ways to recast a piece of writing to avoid latinate or grecian words.
Penultimate? Maybe better for written work, not so hot for everyday activities, when “one before last” will do just fine (and same number of syllables).
My own pet peeve on highfalutin’ language? How about “to help foster…” I mean, honestly, either foster or help, but not both. Or how about “counterparts” – why not just say who they are?
Yeah, I agree with you. Sometimes the silverware has to be used once in a while. We just have to make sure it’s sterling silverplate rather than EPNS (electroplated nickel silver).
“Eponymous” can save a lot of words: “Jane Eyre, after whom the novel is named…” Yecch.
“Penultimate” is shorter and easier to type than “next-to-last”.
There are plenty of other words for “jocund”. Don’t use it myself.
“Diktat” is a congnate with “dictate”, and really unnecessary.
My own favorite useless word is “exacerbate” for “make worse”, as you’ll see in my own recent language-related writings.
I seem to be in complete agreement with you. I, too, like the word “exacerbate.” Although I rarely use it, I’m also keeping “eschew.”
I was using “favorite” in a facetious sense. See my rant at:
Now that I’ve read your blog entry, I see what you mean. I suppose you could say that “exacerbate” is the newbie, since its first known usage according to Merriam Webster was in 1660, whereas “aggravate” in its original sense of making heavier dates from at least 1530. However, the Latin origin of “aggravate,” as you have said, is “heavy” or “burden,” whereas “exacerbate” is related to “sharp,” “harsh,” or “bitter”, leaving the two words with somewhat different nuances, although few people would know this.
I definitely still hear, or have read “aggravate” used in the phrase “aggravate a medical condition.” I don’t hear “exacerbate” used very much at all, but it doesn’t bother me the way it does you. That may be because one of my parents used to accuse the other one quite often of aggravating him/her, using the second meaning of “aggravate” that you would prefer to eschew. And now I have used “eschew.”