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.