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?