On Being Verbose and Verbally Vainglorious
There is one surefire way to put people off, and that is to act pretentious. And there are few more effective ways to appear pretentious that to use rare words. I know, because I have this tendency. But it’s not my fault. I blame my brain.
Well, that’s not exactly right. I blame my brain, and I blame my flashcards. They are jointly and severably liable. You see, I have flash card issues. I love them. And they love me, apparently.
In my study, I still have the collection that I used to study vocabulary for the GRE. I have some 2,000 of them, with words like seraglio and bagatelle and lambent. And studying those things worked for me—put me in the 98th percentile. Go figure.
Nowadays, it’s easier. You don’t need paper flashcards. There are amazing little apps like iFlash. I downloaded this little beauty and have been playing with it ever since. It’s entirely, completely, totally cool. You can even download a deck from freevocabulary. Which, of course, I have done.
See, the thing is, these vocabulary words just stick to me. It’s always been that way, ever since I was little. Sure, I have to use effort to memorize them like anyone else. But it feels good to learn them. There’s a frisson when I store one away. So I tend to want to do it.
But there is a dark side to the Vocabulary Force.
I have to be careful not to use interesting words too often or I sound like a dork. For instance, I recall one time getting into an elevator with a friend of mine after we’d just had a seminar in grad school. “God, ” I said, “that was fucking enervating.”
He looked at me like I was crazy. But it was the word that came to mind. It was the one hooked to the relevant concept. I didn’t think, “Shit. I’m mentally tired,” and then think, “I need a better word for tired,” and then come up with “enervate.” I just went straight to “enervate.”
I blame my brain.
And this brings us to the really big problem with having a large vocabulary—bigger than seeming like a dork or seeming pretentious. As you will find out if you ever develop a large vocabulary, you can’t communicate with others if your vocabulary is too big. And isn’t that the whole point of, like, language?
Sort of a problem, that is.
Now, there are certain words that really do some work, even though they may not be widely known. I call these “compressors.”
A compressor is a word for which there is no one-word synonym—nothing even close. That is, the word substitutes for a long phrase. Compressors are useful. And, inversely, non-compressors are not useful. They are the pretentious words, the ones that will fall out of use over time.
Here’s what I mean. Take the word “perfunctory.” One common meaning of it is “done with little interest or caring.” That’s a compressor. Instead of “done with blah blah blah” my (lazy) brain just has to remember “perfunctory.” That’s more efficient. Brain likey. Brain likey very, very much.
Here’s another: “apotheosis.” Now, that’s rather rarely used, but it is a super compressor: “elevation to divine status,” is one sense, as in, “George Bush’s apotheosis was complete.”
And what’s a non-compressor? “Quisling,” I think, is a good candidate. Yes, it has a specific sense tied to Major Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian collaborator.
But for most of us, it just means “traitor.” And so that doesn’t compress much. Being lazy, I’d rather not have two words for the same concept, because that increases search time when I’m trying to find the right word to express the concept.
So “quisling” gets shitcanned.
Now, an interesting project would be to compile a list of these compressor words—truly useful words that actually saved neurons, rather than just made one sound “smart.”
I don’t particularly need to sound smart. But I do need to preserve neurons for their highest and best uses.