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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 12:01 am

What do you mean by that?

Big words and the search for meaning

I was reading the other evening, which is what I do when I can’t read during the day. My choice this night was a detective novel written by Englishman Bruce Montgomery as Edmund Crispin. Montgomery’s stories are intended as entertainments, but that did not – or did not in 1948, when this one was published – preclude the author from using lots of big words. Some are put into the mouth of his hero, Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford University, but not (as often happens in American novels) to expose him as a snob. Other words come from the author directly, addressing a reader who is assumed to understand them.

Here are a few of those words – infusoria, harmattan, vintem, cryptogamic, congener, eremitical, ferial, irrefragable. (Readers curious to know what these words mean can go to “Defining words” on my Second Thoughts blog at www.illinoistimes.com.) Some are arcane English words, some scientific terms, some the names of objects and phenomena from farther afield. For many a reader today, encountering words such as these in a novel meant for pleasure is like stepping on a sharp stone on a path, and they resent the author who puts them there.


For such readers, big words are an annoyance. At the moment, they are also an issue. The College Board, author of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, recently ditched “SAT words” such as “prevaricator” and “sagacious” from its tests of English mastery. Such words are widely damned as useless in everyday discourse, words students have to learn only to sustain, via the SAT, the pretense that they are educated.

A few months back, James S. Murphy considered the hoo-hah about SAT words such as “unscrupulous” in The Atlantic. “The Microsoft Word thesaurus provides as synonyms for unscrupulous [the words] dishonest, corrupt, dodgy, immoral and ruthless,” he wrote. “These words occupy a similar semantic space, but they are not equivalent to each other.” No, indeed. Any such list of synonyms is like a drawer crammed with woodworking planes – they’re all very alike to the eye, but each is different enough to make it a much more useful tool for doing particular tasks than the others.

Unscrupulous behavior, for example, is not merely dishonest, it ignores what ought to be the doer’s scruples about its propriety. Murphy points out that unscrupulous is a useless word only if you don’t appreciate why you would choose it over dishonest or corrupt (and, I would add, if you don’t care whether you are able to make such distinctions). “You need to know, for instance, that it is appropriate to call the behavior of many mortgage lenders unscrupulous, but not to call a small child’s lie to his mother unscrupulous, since we do not expect young children to live according to principles . . . .”

Knowing lots of big words – and not only knowing their dictionary definitions but knowing how to use them in a sentence – correlates reliably to general educational achievement. However, people are not educated because they know lots of big words. They tend to know lots of big words because they are educated. Education and “lexical skills” happen simultaneously – if given the chance to. Murphy explains why better than I can: “Knowing when to use unscrupulous depends not just on repeated textual encounters with the word as it is actually used, but on repeated encounters with similar words, with the whole semantic family of synonyms and antonyms for unscrupulous, since it is through them that a person can learn how similar words are different.”

Those repeated encounters, of course, come through reading – specifically reading  that includes words you don’t know. My sense is that schoolkids don’t see nearly enough of it. Teachers dare not offer kids books that challenge them, lest the unskilled readers become discouraged. Parents – the ultimate constituency of the SAT – are uninterested in any learning that is not essential to a career.

It’s quite true that you do not need big words to make most livings. Having a wider word choice makes clearer communication possible, but it won’t actually improve communication unless the people you’re communicating with know those words too. Nor do you need to know such words to carry on everyday conversation. That’s why so many people conclude that acquiring a larger vocabulary is just showing off.

But words are not, like jewelry, mere adornments to the educated. They are more like tools that allow us to think more subtly about a complicated world. If you know only a few simple words, the world and everything in it seems simple. The result can be seen in our national politics, which is dominated by people who believe that big words are unnecessary as long as one speaks with big voice. Using big words to express small thoughts will impress no one whose opinion is worth having. However, knowing such words enables us to communicate more clearly with ourselves.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at jkrohe@illinoistimes.com.


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