Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thoughts on a Vocab Habit

This is for all the wordy people.  Don't let the word haters get you down.  Don't let them stage an intervention to break you of your vocab habit.  It's good for you, and they should be able to see that. 

In this month off from schooling and teaching, in the absence of my esteemed English grad student colleagues, I've been dropping some big words here and there.  They don't fall into place quite so well when you don't have a captive audience of officemates who use all the same words.  We get excited when someone says "aplomb" for God's sake.  (And one day a couple of us even took pains to look up the language of origin for that one, so we could enjoy it more fully.  With aplomb even.)

I've come to a sort of conclusion that as you use more words, longer words, and more discipline specific words, you just don't hear them anymore.  Or you expect that other people know them, because you've known them for so damn long.  This not hearing one's self can happen with any jargon.  Hank Hill probably talks to people in propane terms they can't sort out.  A doctor might use all kinds of medical terminology at home while his kids just roll their eyes.  But we in English, our thing is words! 

So, how does that make our jargon spouting okay?  Words are what our jargon is about.  And we love all kinds of them.  So the objects of our jargon, instead of being some industry specific doodads that no one else knows about or ever needs to care about, are already all around us (and you, and anyone who speaks or reads).  Perhaps a plastics manufacturer could say the same thing.  But we don't consume plastics the way we consume books and culture.

So if we use a big word on you, it is a compliment.  We think you know what we're saying.  We think you're smart.

We are not, contrary to popular belief, trying to make you feel stupid.  Nor are we always trying to show off.  These things, they just come out of us.  We don't intend to be showy, offensive, or obfuscatory.  (See, there it goes again.) How about this:  If we are being otherwise reasonable, but use a word you don't understand, you can ask what it means, or say something friendly like "I'm not sure what you mean."  We'll probably even apologize for our wordiness.  But yelling at us to "SPEAK ENGLISH!" just won't do.  We could ask the same of you, if that's your attitude.  That's right.

I recently caused some kind of offense (whatever kind is caused by non-offensive words) when I used "discourse" and "philosophy" in a non-academic conversation.  I shouldn't have to apologize for that.  Nor should I be made out to be Ms. Bombastic for uttering more than three syllables at a breath.  None of us should.  Don't kick the habit.

Now I'm not saying that we who study English forget how to code-switch.  I'm sure some intellectuals in all fields forget how to talk to their mothers or to the garbage man, but most of us don't strike up a conversation about hermeneutics with the latter or tell the former she's looking "pulchritudinous" today.

I'm also not saying there aren't actual living sesquipedalians (people who use big words just to use big words) out there.  In fact many of them probably reside in the English and Philosophy departments.  But those windbags are the minority.   That's a great word -- windbag.

By the way I totally know what hermeneutics means now, and it's lost all its mystique for me.  Not knowing a word can give it so many dimensions!  Even half knowing a word can be fun, because then you can try it out.  What the hell, right?  Someone who didn't quite understand "empower" turned it into a word for women's issues, and it used to be something only the friggin' Pope could do.

So there you have my attitude on not knowing a word.  Just because we like to use the biggun's doesn't mean we have all of them in our personal arsenals.  No one does!  But if I hear one from a friend or read one in a book, I won't demand a sorry substitute.  I'll look it up.  I'll ask what it means.  I'll probably try it out on you tomorrow.  And not because I think you're stupid, or because I want you to think I'm smart.  It's just a healthy habit of mine.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post! Also, props on the King of the Hill reference.


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