Big Words, part two

Love and affection: the dictionary tells us that these two words are synonymous, but we all know that’s not true.

When someone says “I love you,” they are opening themselves to you for an intimate emotional relationship. When they say “I have great affection for you,” the relationship’s over.

We respond to big words differently than to little words. While little words can communicate intimacy or a casual informality, big words create emotional distance and communicate a certain formality. Big words give us distance, when need be, from “plain English.” Even better, they let us distance ourselves from the blockheads we usually are.

Of course, sometimes we’re just putting on airs. Sometimes the big words serve no purpose other than to gratify our egos. In the paragraph above, I wanted to write “a casual and quotidian informality.” Now, “quotidian” is a good word, and it’s almost perfect there; it means exactly what I’m trying to say, and it has just the right lilt, the right rhythm. More importantly, it would have let me exhibit my large and robust vocabulary.

(That sound you hear in the background is my wife snickering.)

Sometimes the big word is the right word for the job. But, alas, “quotidian” is not the right word in a newspaper column. Not that readers don’t have substantial vocabularies, but unless it’s the crossword, the newspaper simply isn’t the place for challenging a reader’s personal lexicon. When we’re reading the newspaper, no one wants to have to go running for the dictionary.

Using the word “quotidian” here would be like wearing a suit to a soccer game, just as using contractions in formal writing is like wearing Xtratufs to a tango competition.

That last simile took a little xtra effort. This is Juneau: is there anywhere we don’t wear Xtratufs? But the simile is germane.

American culture grows more informal with each passing year. Generally, I think this is a good thing. We’re free to wear Xtratufs almost anywhere, and we’re free to write in what used to be called the “vulgar tongue,” i.e., plain English. We can use our everyday language in documents that were formerly encrusted with a smug and supercilious formality.

But the freedom to be informal also gives us the freedom not to be. When necessary, we can choose words that we hear less frequently in conversation and that thus heighten the distinction between the informal and the formal, between the casual and the legal, between options and obligations. When the occasion for writing is formal, this freedom helps our readers respond appropriately.

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, academic culture had loosened up enough by that time that we regularly addressed our professors by their first names. But there was one professor, John O’Connor, whom my friends and I always addressed as Professor O’Connor. We could have called him John; everyone else did. We didn’t have to call him professor. It was precisely in our freedom not to do so that our addressing him as “Professor” expressed our deep respect for this beautiful man.

And it is precisely in our freedom to not always be so formal in writing that we have a greater ability to write deliberately and to have our choices speak clearly to our readers. In exercising that freedom and choosing consciously whether to use big words or small, a formal or a more colloquial English, we have the chance to be better writers—or worse.

As Neil Young always reminds us — or maybe it was Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. And those are really big words.

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