Big words

By , March 25, 2014 6:23 am

When you are reading and run across a “big” (or hey! a “small”) word that you don’t know the meaning of, do you make an effort to look it up and add it to your vocabulary? Or do you skim over it and just try to figure it out from the context around it?

I was reading this article “Big Words Are Fading, But Many People Still Love Them” (pdf here), and it made me think about how when I see a word I don’t know, it’s about a 50/50 chance whether I will look it up or not. I try to figure out things via context, but sometimes, it’s not possible, so I look it up. My eyes tend to skip over words I don’t know – I have a really hard time with pronunciation, and the easy route for my brain is to not figure out how to pronounce things. Brain! You so lazy!

Funny, that I bought this book (below) years ago and was so pumped about the exercises I wrote about them here, and would even do them long-distance with Steven (when I was traveling for work). Hmm, maybe I will pick it up, again? Riiiiiiiiiiight.


That article is actually really interesting. It mentions that technology is encouraging us to shorten our words – for time and space’s sake. Even the SATs are being modified to “drop obscure vocabulary words.”

And of course, it was fun to read people’s reactions to others using “big words” on them. As I started reading the article, people came to mind who I perceive as using “big words” to sound smart and confuse others, and sure enough, this point was made in the article:

If you are using $50 words to show off, and you know people will not understand them, then that is unkind and annoying, and they have a reason to react negatively.

Hee hee. 

It also gave tips for big word lovers, on how to read people and know when to use them. You know, writing that almost makes me think we are getting closer and closer to Idiocracy, but nah, if something can be explained with one simpler word, or a few simpler ones… that isn’t really a bad thing. I would rather focus on my communication skills (which need some work) than big words. 

For S&G, here is a list of words used in that article that I would have to look up to know the meaning (especially since many were used as examples and not in context). How many of these do you know, off hand? Yeah, I should know quite a few of these! And I think it’s funny that spellcheck thinks a lot of these aren’t words. Ha!

  • ebullient
  • innocuous
  • malodorous
  • prevaricator
  • sagacious
  • ignominious
  • empirical
  • otorhinolaryngology
  • fastidious 
  • esoteric
  • penultimate
  • non sequitur
  • didactic 
  • circumlocute
  • obfuscate
  • perfidiousness
  • excogitate
  • perspicacious
  • remunerative
  • vicissitudes

34 Responses to “Big words”

  1. Anne says:

    Let’s see, I know innocuous, sagacious, empirical, fastidious, penultimate, non sequitur, didactic, remunerative and vicissitudes. I would only use a few of them in everyday conversation, assuming people know what they mean (example, don’t most people know what a non sequitur is?).

    Some of these I actually do remember learning while studying for the SATs, but haven’t used too much since then. So I guess I’m not surprised some of the focus on vocabulary may be going away! I’d rather see a shift to grammar, so more people would know the difference between your/you’re or when to use an apostrophe.

    • kilax says:

      I tried to understand non sequitur to see if you were making a joke with your use of it, and I still don’t get it. But you will appreciate that one page said Ralph Wiggum is the master of the non sequitur.

      Oh gosh. Yes. Grammar is probably worse because of technology as well. I would rather see a focus on that, too.

      • Anne says:

        I wasn’t making a joke – non sequitur seems like it’s a fairly common word anymore, I seriously thought most people knew what that was. And Ralph Wiggum is indeed a master of it.

        • kilax says:

          Okay, that’s good that I completely didn’t miss something. But, now you know how poor my vocabulary is! Hopefully not everyone is as dumb as me!

            • kilax says:

              Thanks for sharing that. That was really interesting. I wouldn’t find that type of humor funny in that show (ha, I strongly dislike that show) but I do like commercials like that, if they work. And maybe there is some of this humor in the show I watch now, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

              So some of the reading make me think a non sequitur is only when a fallacy is made my an illogical question. But, it can just be something completely random? Because I wanted to say… that is how I think and talk to people. The randomness.

              • Anne says:

                Uh yeah, Family Guy drives me crazy. I don’t mind non sequiturs (since, like you, I make them a lot myself!), but theirs just drag on. Like the 2-minute chicken fight the article mentioned. Okay, we get it, you’re short on material this week.

                A non sequitur is something that’s not connected to the conversation in any clear way. Another good TV example is Grey’s Anatomy – they seem to launch into random unrelated monologues a lot. It’s clear that the character has been thinking about this, but it’s totally unrelated to the conversation that’s actually happening.

                I think non sequiturs are probably something that a lot of people either use regularly, or can identify if they hear it, but maybe just don’t know the word for?

                • kilax says:

                  I am happy I am not the only one who can’t stand that show! LOL.

                  I bet you are right – people know what they are, just not the word. Maybe now I should go back and re-read that comic strip?

                  Man, it’s annoying how small the chat box gets as we respond back and forth. LOL!

  2. ChezJulie says:

    Girl, you are malodorous after a long run!

    I know a lot of the words on that list. Probably because I like to read Victorian novels. I think those are words that are used in writing but rarely in conversation. Interesting note – when I show today’s college students some of the books designed for children in the 19th century, they are SHOCKED at how complex the language was, and what big words were used in children’s spelling books and magazines.

    • kilax says:

      Ha. I am malodorous a lot more often than I should be 😉 (and confession – I could not figure out the pronunciation of that word, so I didn’t get it. I read it as “malo – dorous.”)

      When I was writing this, I was thinking about that line in You’ve Got Mail, when Meg Ryan’s character is like “Confession, I have read Pride and Prejudice two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like ‘Thither. Mischance. Felicity.’ ” Ha ha!

      Good point about them being better in writing! 🙂

      And what were some of the books?! That is interesting!!!

  3. Kiersten says:

    This just makes me realize how lazy I’ve gotten. I love words and when I came across a new word, I used to use my latin, to try to figure out what it meant, and then I’d look up both the meaning the etymology. Now I am more likely to just skim over it.

    • kilax says:

      Why do you think you have fallen out of the habit?

      Side note: I so wished I knew Latin when I was studying all of the muscle names!!!

      • Kiersten says:

        I think I’ve just gotten lazy and out of that student mentality. I took 5 years of Latin, but now more than 10 years later I hardly remember anything.

  4. Heather says:

    I love that list, haha! I am going to say…I love big words. I love language precision, I love the art that you can create by picking exactly the right way to say something with exactly the right sounds. I love word play and the art of the written and spoken word. I love poetry and novels and novellas from all eras.

    As a teenager that was incredibly difficult because it was, for me at least, hard to figure out when I could use my real vocabulary and when I had to modify. I was scolded by more than one teacher who said it looked like I was showing off, but the truth was I just didn’t have the filter to know when I could be myself and when I had to put on a social face. Acquiring that took a lot more growing up.

    Also, spell check almost never likes medical words. So otorhinolaryhology isn’t surprising to see in red!

    • kilax says:

      Aww! I love that you are so in to it! And as I’ve been thinking about this and responding to comments, I do think it’s awesome when there is one succinct word that describes something.

      I am surprised a teacher would act that way and not guide you! I mean, not until adulthood would you even think to use words that way, right? 😉 lol

  5. Heather says:

    Haha, there’s a guy at my work who I swear purposely uses big words to sound smart. I usually just say “can you say that again in regular people’s terms?”. Lolol!

  6. Rick Stiles says:

    Had a memo writing coworker who loved to drop in one big word in every memo. It was kinda fun! I remember one phrase he used: “A particularly perspicacious programmer will …”.

  7. Kristina says:

    What a fun book! That looks like it would be great for road tripping…
    I like using some ‘big words’ – penultimate is one of my favorites. Also, I don’t use them much, but crapulous and fatuous, mainly because they have nothing to do with crap or fat but they make me laugh. I’m obviously immature – or puerile!

    • kilax says:

      Oooo, you’re good! Ha ha – how often do you use penultimate?! 🙂 I am trying to think of when I would say that 🙂 Penultimate mile in a race? LOL

      • Kristina says:

        Oooh, I like to use penultimate when I’m talking to students about the academic year – and then I tell them “SAT word” (maybe not anymore?).
        I don’t use it much when racing, but maybe I’ll try that – see if it makes me feel any better – HA!

  8. Kandi says:

    After Anne’s comment I had to look up what non sequitur was!
    I didn’t used to think I used ‘big’ words but when I’m around children (tweens and younger) I get asked often what words I use mean.
    My roomie in college laughed at me because I told him I was going to ‘consolidate’ two boxes of open Cheerios.
    I know a certain local politician (who had my mom and I arrested when I was in high school… long story) who likes to use big words to make himself sound smart. I think it does the opposite! Whenever I read something he wrote in the newspaper it sounds like he just used the thesaurus on every other word.

    • kilax says:

      Ha ha ha. Consolidate? Well, if it was a college roommate, I am sure they are very familiar with the word, post college.

      Yeah, I think you can tell when someone is just abusing the thesaurus!

  9. Alice says:

    I was a huuuuuuge reading nerd growing up (my mom would kick me out of the house in the summer so I’d go outside & play instead of reading for 12 hours a day) so that list is pretty familiar to me 🙂 My friends at my first job used to tease me for my vocabulary, saying I was using “william and mary words” when I used big words in conversation. (W&M is my alma mater, and somewhat ironically, is a state school, so not particularly pretentious normally….)

    • kilax says:

      Are you still a big reading nerd? So I am guessing, as a kid, you looked all these words up. What helped you remember them? Just that you were reading them over and over?

      • Alice says:

        I wish I were still a huge reading nerd! These days I only read when I’m on vacation 🙁 As a kid I sometimes looked up words, but often just used the context to figure them out too.

  10. kapgar says:

    This is one of the great things about reading on an iPad. I can double tap a word I don’t know and get the definition. So long as it’s not some strange, made up word for Game of Thrones, that is. And there are plenty.

  11. Diane says:

    Ugh, as an English major this makes me so sad. Especially the words being dropped from the SAT. 🙁
    I get the focus on simplicity, but I also think it’s kind of society getting lazy and copping out. Language is beautiful to me, and you miss out on CREATIVE ways to express yourself when you just stick to the same old little words over and over again! (not YOU, as in Kim, but the general you)
    I had an interview where the person asked me what I like to do in my spare time, and I said I love to read and I love film because it’s the new literacy. And she laughed and said, “Wow, that’s the English nerd in you!” I was so embarrassed, but it just slipped out!

    • kilax says:

      Ha ha ha! I don’t think that is embarrassing! I think that is cool that that is what you are in to! 🙂

      I don’t know why your comment made me think of this, but I wonder if other countries with different languages are struggling with the same thing… and if anyone is fighting it, rather than adapting to it, like the article implies we are!

  12. I know all of the words on that list except otorhinolaryngology and excogitate (but I think the former has something to do with speaking and I know what cogitate means – thinking right?) Does that make me pedantic? I don’t use these words if there is a smaller word at my fingertips.

    I get aggravated with the “big word” people, especially silly things like saying utilize instead of use…it makes me even crazier when people mis-use big words… or any words!

    • kilax says:

      I think the article said otorhinolaryngology was the study of ears, mouth and something else? Ha ha. Excogitate is “think out, plan or devise.” 🙂

      Ha! So it sounds like you know a few people who are using big words when they really don’t need to? 😉

  13. jan says:

    I looooove big words. I love to hear them and spell them and know them. I just really don’t like writing with them. It makes me feel pretentious. Or maybe just plain snobby! Plus, I can never figure out a way to string them together in a way that doesn’t sound stupid. Or, should I say ludicrous? LOL

  14. martymankins says:

    Oh, I look up the word for sure. I even go old school and break out the giant hardback dictionary I have in my office at home. Most of the time, I Google it so i can get more example of the use of the word.

  15. Erin says:

    Let’s see. Off the top of my head I could tell you what the following mean: innocuous, malodorous, empirical, fastidious, esoteric, penultimate, non sequitur, obfuscate. And a few of the others I could definitely figure out in context because I know I’ve seen them used before.

    I can almost always figure out what a word means via the context but occasionally I have no clue. Like when I was reading an article for class last quarter and had to look up the word semiotics. Which didn’t help because the author was using a form of it that still didn’t make sense to me!

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