Creative Process

To People Who Think I Use Big Words to Sound Smart

By August 28, 2015 22 Comments
Using Big Words to Sound Smart

The comment screenshot.

Update (12/15/2016): I published a video/post follow-up to this at “The Right Word Is The Simpler Word”.

Recently someone commented on a comment I left on a Youtube video, claiming that I was using big words to sound smart.

The problem I have with this comment is not so much the commenter thinking that I have low self-esteem or that I am repeating what the Youtube video creator said in the guise of my own ideas. My problem lies with the fact that more and more, people are being encouraged to tone down their vocabulary to satisfy “what’s normal”.

Like I mentioned in another post, words have power and they represent more than just a definition. How you select and use words represent an extension of yourself, your beliefs, and your agency. It also gives you a say in how others perceive you, and that’s where there’s potential conflict.

Misusing Big Words Is a Problem

If you’re using big words out of context or are using them incorrectly, then you deserve to be called out, if only with the intention of helping you correct the misused words. If you’re using big words to sound smart, then at least you’re reading and learning and care about how you’re being perceived, despite the social repercussions.

In a Youtube video about writing and the English language, “medias res” is not a big word/term or used out of context. Most English majors know what the term is. It is a quicker way to convey an idea. If what I said was needlessly complicated for the sake of being complicated, then we have a problem.

A basic rule of marketing is that if you use words that your customers understand and use themselves, then they are more likely to buy from you. However, based on my experiences both on the Internet and in real life, this has become an expectation everywhere else. You are now expected to speak the language of the audience at large if you want to be seen as “normal”, and you’re criticized, however gently, if you don’t.

Big Words & I

When I was a kid, I liked to read. If you read a lot, you pick up new words and add it to your vocabulary. My parents gave me a Collins dictionary when I turned twelve (not the worst birthday gift I’ve gotten), and it came in handy when I had to look up words like “magnanimous” or “rote”.

The best way to make what you learned stick, I have found, is to apply your learning, and to apply daily. So provided that the context is correct, I would use words like “acclivity” to talk about sleighing down a slope. It got me weird stares from my classmates, but in my mind, this is how you learn, and how you learn well.

However, the comments didn’t stop. Even when I became an adult, I still occasionally get comments like “you talk Dexter” or “can you translate that into English now?”. And there was always one or two people asking if I was purposefully reading a dictionary in order to make myself look better than everyone else.

Ironically, these comments made me feel inadequate. Over the long-term, these comments turned me into an outsider. I was different and different in a bad way. This gradual realization made me change a few things. To fit in, I started toning down my vocabulary and adopted colloquialisms. I would add “like” and “you know” to my sentences, and downplay what I knew.

Since our use of words defines and represents us, I was suppressing who I was as a person. This percolated through other areas of my life, especially writing, and I wasn’t happy because I was denying who I am.

How to Deal

I believe it’s easier to do the difficult thing that will make you happy in the long-term than it is to put off doing the difficult thing for short-term happiness. As a result, once I shed the false vocabulary and false self-identity, things improved.

I learned that:

1) You’re never going to please everyone.
2) People are entitled to their own opinions, but only to an extent. If their opinion does not a) point you to a mistake you’re making or b) help you correct this mistake, then there’s no point engaging them in further conversation.

As a result, I didn’t reply to the commenter because of 1) and 2). The commenter did, however, point me to a mistake that I made in the past, which is thinking that I needed to change how I speak and write to appease the masses, and for that, I am thankful for the motivation to write about this topic.

Provided the context is right, express yourself however you want, because your words—and by extension, your life—are your own.

Don’t waste time trying to speak someone else’s language.

Millie’s Note: What’s your take?

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • gipsika says:

    The lowest intellectual common denominator is stupidity. If you have to pretend to be stupid just to “fit in”, I guess you need to examine the crowd you’re trying to fit in with. Do you really want to be one of them? Just shrug off the trolls and carry on with who you want to be! The right people will gather around you.

    • Millie Ho says:

      You’re right. Everything you say, do, or project automatically becomes a filter. The point I was trying to address was that in an open environment like a school or the Internet, it’s harder to choose your groups unless you’re enforcing constraints (i.e.: viewable if you know a password, etc). I don’t want to enforce constraints, so I need to get used to it.

      • gipsika says:

        🙂 Just stand your ground. They (the stupids who criticize you for being intelligent) are the ones who will stick out. I wonder how many intelligent readers read that comment of that person and thought, “ouch!” If the commenter had kept quiet, he/she would not have removed all doubt, if you know what I mean. “Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses”, as applied to them. Youtube is indeed a forum that draws that type like moths to a flame.

  • Ariana says:

    Millie, your distinct voice and use of language is one of my favourite things about you! Don’t ever change that, my friend.

  • kvennarad says:

    I occasionally get “can you translate that into English now?” when I use my normal range of vocabulary. How I usually react is to look whoever said in the eye and say, “How fucking RUDE!”

    This goes okay for everyday speech. I find creative writing to be a different thing altogether. I just read a review my agent wrote (his sideline is writing for a Scottish website that specialises in reviewing gigs, poetry readings, lectures, stage performances, etc. etc.) about a promotional event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where a well-known British-Indian actor discussed and read from her new novel. He picked her up for using the word ’emanating’ where ‘come’ would have done. That was a point of style. The longer word injected a tone into the narrative which was unnecessary. This is where the point is selecting the right word, be it short and Saxon, or elongated and Latinate, is part of the basic skill of a writer.

    The individual who pulled you up on your use of long words in a comment is just being a plonker, and you can tell him that from me!

    • Millie Ho says:

      I wonder how people respond when you reply like that. I usually shrug it off or change myself (if I was in the wrong) according to external feedback. Especially on the Internet, calling out people in the wrong who are not receptive to criticism just leads to a whole lot of headache.

      ‘Emanating’ has got to be one of the most overused big words. If you can communicate your point clearly and quickly using a smaller word, that’s perfectly fine. Same goes for larger words. People who call you out for using big words, unless they’re trying to help you use the English language better, don’t deserve your time.

      • kvennarad says:

        I think there is a way of pointing out problems with style and with making yourself understood. A sarky comment isn’t isn’t it, and they know it. Usually when my response is unsmiling, straight back at them, my hands on my hips, and loud, they’re simply shocked that someone who uses big words can also say ‘fucking’, and that ends the trouble.

        Believe me, someone who makes a comment like whoever did to you has absolutely no desire to be helpful.

        On the internet one has the same option, but others also, and often it depends entirely on context. I find that where I have advice to offer, often it works to ask permission first. Usually I get ‘Sure, go ahead’. Very rarely do I get, ‘Who are YOU to offer advice?’

        With unsolicited advice received on line, if it is malicious I tend to ignore it more than I would do in the in-real-life context, I admit.

  • aetherhouse says:

    Ugh, God, this. I don’t even speak as elegantly as you do and I still get similar comments. I really like the word “laudable,” for example. Apparently that makes me holier than thou about language.

    I’ve never been struck with the impression that you’re trying to bloat your language with hipster SAT words or anything. You speak concisely and clearly. I’ve never had trouble interpreting what you’re trying to say, and I appreciate some of your interesting word choices, like “percolate” here. (there are in fact *some* people who seem like they’re trying to sound “smarter” by speaking in such uncommon language that you literally can’t understand anything they say – mostly because their actual meaning is empty. You are not one of them).

    Point is, it’s very easy to make people feel inferior these days, even by just being yourself. But screw ’em. It’s their problem if they feel like “confusion erupts” is so high brow that it makes them insecure about their English. Using language that effectively is a much better alternative to text speak in our 140 character world, IMO.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Interesting point about ego, Michelle. It makes sense. If someone is reacting strongly to something you’re saying (something which doesn’t warrant such a reaction), you really do have to examine what’s causing them to react in that way. I know that people who go on a rampage and criticize other people often blame them for faults they see in themselves. Someone who criticizes you for using “laudable” because it makes you holier than thou probably has an ego problem of their own.

      P.S.: I’m glad we speak the same language!

  • How is that sentence even using “big words?” It’s just a normal sentence? Stupid troll is stupid, methinks. Just ignore and continue as you were.

  • I love this post! Post it every six months please. Remind people to get over it. Get over that we are all different. Vive la difference!

    We are all readers in my home. I and my children read early and that gave us a full vocabulary. I am not perfect. I hope I don’t come off pretentious. But if I do, and I don’t feel pretentious, I suppose that isn’t me, right?

    It’s fun to learn new words. I like it better than ice cream.

  • Gail says:

    There is a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron” that deals with the subject of this editorial and what’s been commented. Kurt Vonnegut is kind of the Seinfeld of the beat period because he seems to have written a story for every occasion. This one illustrates what happens when everyone is equal.

    It gets dark fast.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for the tip, Gail. I’ll read the short story now. Based on the premise alone, I’m reminded of communism and how it may be idealistic but inevitably failed because human nature contradicts a lot of its tenets. People are quick to note others who are different, but enforced sameness will never work.

  • Gail says:

    I think the reason communism doesn’t seem to go well isn’t because it requires sameness in the context of this thread. Communism was supposed to create a societal structure that let go of the hierarchal structure that encouraged sorting people by how wealthy their family is. High wealth meant high value. Class differences were to be clearly displayed to the point that it was considered deceptive, even fraudulent, if a low born individual dressed well.

    Communism should have relieved the “low born” from the struggle to raise themselves up, while lessening the ability of “haves” to continue to hoard money. It didn’t go like that.

    I think it would have gone better in Eastern Europe if the timing had been better. In the Soviet Block, a communist economic system was implemented after WWll when the area was so beaten up and broken and just broke that there was no wealth to redistribute.

    In Asia, the culture has always been stoic compared to what we are used to. Country and family needs are first and individual wants/needs are a distant third. I think it could have gone better there if the government had looked at the shift they were making with their economy in mind. It is an economic system, after all. In order to equalize the classes, they just relocated the thinkers and artists to the communal farms and factories. The change was so abrupt that the effect was more like an economic earthquake. It might have helped if adjustments could have been made, but saving face is a priority. The embarrassment would be too great if an error had been admitted.

    …Thinking about it, though, the system does kind of assume the same effort and level of skill from everyone, and that isn’t going to happen.

    • kvennarad says:

      I think one of the main problems with critiques of communism is that we do not realised that ours comes from a cultural standpoint; we think we are providing a rational counter to it, but in fact our opinions are coloured by a whole raft of cognitive biases. We have a ‘zero-point’ of normality which depends on our upbringing in the capitalist West, the cultural overlay of which is ingrained in us from an early age. This is particularly apparent in how we judge the action of supposed ‘human nature’, more of which later. All of this is very difficult for us to step aside from.

      The second problem with our assessment of communism is that it is almost entirely based on the dismal failure that was 20c Bolshevism in Russia. That in turn leads to an ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama) ‘sanctification’ of capitalism – it is almost seen as a Divinely ordained state, in fact to some sects it is precisely that!

      The fact remains that Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ was, and still is, one of the clearest and most comprehensive critiques of capitalism ever presented. It is not without its own flaws, but the flaws it pointed out in 19c capitalism still exist, magnified, in 21c capitalism. In particular the ‘theft of labour’. Marx’s dictum of ‘to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities’ remains one of the most sane, humane, and rational political principles ever stated. [One of the major flaws of the Marxist model – and I use the term ‘Marxist’ here to stand for the major world/national movements that purported to follow Marx’s principles – was that the State decided what those needs and abilities were, and it tended to be a one-size-fits-all solution.]

      The better criticisms of communism come from positions to the left of it, rather than from the right. From those movements for which the goal is one of participatory, grass-roots democracy, which depend on individual freedom within mutual communities, on equal voices in micro assemblies, and on upward systems that are based on delegation not on ‘representation’ (for ‘representation’ read ‘abrogation’ – my big soap-box issue against systems that label themselves ‘democratic’). From movements which might also incorporate ‘communism’ even in their own label (e.g. ‘anarcho-communism’). And from people like myself, who work towards promoting the social and cooperative value of work above its commercial value (for ‘commercial value’ read ‘price’ – it is always ‘price’, and price is always artificial!). These are considerations which have now to be taken seriously, as we head for a major and irreparable break-down in capitalism.

      As for human nature, we are by nature societal and cooperative (see P A Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’); the competitive, hegemonic systems that we know today are aberrant to that nature. And, as I said, they fuel the bias of our view – it’s a circular problem.

      Okay – that’s enough big words so I seem clever. 🙂

    • kvennarad says:

      I think what I was looking at wasn’t communism per se, but the way in which we view it.

      I recall when the Berlin Wall came down, one of the first visible effects in Scotland was a group of three Trabants, line astern, touring the beauty spots of the Highlands. I saw them myself.

  • Gail says:

    PS. I appreciate that you wrote a lot and not alot.

  • I love words. Language is such a beautiful and interesting thing, and it’s disappointing to imagine words falling away due to lack of use. I think what’s happening with the hostile responses is that people feel embarrassed or vulnerable when faced with someone speaking words they don’t know, so they go on the defensive. I’ve had people react that way to me, and at times I myself have been the one who didn’t know what someone was saying. It *does* feel a bit embarrassing, so I understand the emotion but I don’t ever support lashing out or mocking someone. There are better ways to respond. On the other hand, though, even though I love language, I don’t support smugness or pomposity – when people purposely alienate others by talking over them. “Know your audience,” as they say. If I know that someone has a less extensive vocabulary, I adjust, because I want them to feel comfortable and welcome in the conversation.

  • M. Miles says:

    Millie, thank you so much for this post! It’s a breath of fresh air!

    It’s interesting that people have pinged you for “being confusing” with your vocabulary. In my mind, a large vocabulary allows for more precise communication.

    The English language has over 1,000,000 words, and all of them have a purpose. Restricting ourselves to a smaller portion of that vocabulary is like settling for the 8-pack of crayons, when we could be using the 96-pack of crayons. If you color your world with the 8-pack, you are going to lose a lot of the subtle variations that give charm, and even truth, to life.

    Thanks again for your post, and keep wielding your 96-pack of crayons! Precise self-expression is its own reward.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I completely agree with your crayon analogy. I learned in the year and a half since I wrote this post that there’s a difference between having a big vocabulary and being clear.

      I think when I was a kid I used big words when I could’ve used smaller words. I was learning better using the big words in my day-to-day communication, but I now know that clarity comes from using the RIGHT word. And most of the time, the right word happens to be the simpler word.

      I might write a blog post on this sometime, so thanks for the prompt, and for dropping by. 🙂

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