Quite a few years ago, at a friend’s wedding I had been chatting with a fellow guest when she declared, “You sure do use big words!” This caused me to reflect on what I’d been saying just then and for the previous years of my existence. I don’t remember my reply. I wish I’d said, “Thank you,” but I’m pretty sure that I stammered an apology.
This exchange got me thinking. Upon reflection, I am pretty sure she meant unusual words more than big words. And yes, I am guilty as charged – I do enjoy using unusual words, but hopefully only when they fit the situation. Both in our speaking and our writing unusual words are vital: they bring language to life, making what we say and write more specific and more fun. The regular use of unusual words preserves and cultivates the remarkable diversity of the English language and it can engage our listeners and readers.
A few caveats or qualifications. First, usually we want our communication to be transparent and inclusive so we need to make sure that our words are comprehensible. That can be done through contextual clues or a definition (i.e. “in other words” or a parenthetical explanation). Second, we want to make sure that we use unusual words for carefully chosen purposes. Unusual words provide variety, but if all our words are unusual that in itself a sort of monotony. Jargon, endemic to just about every subfield offers many examples of big words that have become dulled by excessive and sometimes imprecise use. Used carefully, however, unusual words keep things interesting for readers and writers alike and that is certainly a noble aspiration. So, here’s to unusual words in all their diversity and glory.