The Charm of the Large Word

girl reading dictionary.jpg

Big words get a bad rap.

George Orwell practically outlaws them in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (which, if you haven’t yet read, do, as soon as you finish this). It’s right there in rule (ii): Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Hemingway famously preferred short words to long:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Using big words may feed our ego. Hemingway clearly thought they fed Faulkner’s.

And ego-nourishment is no reason to use a big word.

But big words can be beautiful. Notice that Orwell doesn’t categorically prohibit them; he implies room for their use “where a short word” won’t do. Hemingway masterfully combined short words to make big meaning, but not everyone has Hemingway’s talent or wants to imitate his style.

As with every word on a page, a big word must earn its place by communicating something vital to the author’s message. Orwell’s opposition stemmed from reading text bloated with big words that supplied no meaning or clarity. Hemingway’s motivation to avoid them seems more stylistic.

In any case, to earn its place in a text, a big word must be two things: the right word and the best word.

It’s the right word if its meaning is what you intend. It can be tempting to use a word whose meaning we sort of know; we’ve heard it in this context before. But if its meaning isn’t precisely right, some of your readers will know this, and you’ll lose credibility with them. Readers who know its meaning no better than you will not be impressed either, because they will only sort of know what you’re trying to say. Of course using such a word shows that you only sort of know what you’re saying, too.

It’s the best word if using it reduces your overall word count. Take a word like trajectories, which I used in the phrase “At some point in our writing trajectories” in my last post. Using trajectories saved me four other words, because the alternative in that context was “in our paths of development as writers.” It also spared me using a more boring big word, development.

If a simpler synonym would be vague (e.g. routes for trajectories) or if avoiding the big word creates verbosity, let the big word do its work.

One of the English language’s most beautiful features is its many words, each with a shade of meaning ever so slightly distinct from its next nearest relative. This feature lets us write with precision, which gives our ideas clarity, which improves communication, which is, after all, the point of prose.