Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Simplicity of “Complicated” Words


Walking my dog recently, the word “fecundity” came to mind. This wet, ripe earth and rot smell sometimes turns the morning walk into the morning tug-of-war: she wants to sniff EVERYTHING.

I love the word “fecundity,” but as I thought this, I had a flashback to an old girlfriend who gave me grief for using “ostentatious” to describe a house. She thought I was showing off: “Why do you have to use such complicated words? Why can’t you talk like everyone else?” (I guess she found my use of ostentatious ostentatious.)

But what I told her at the time still holds true: what other word captures it? Ostentatious means ostentatious. Trying to convey the same meaning with another word isn’t possible. It’s only possible with multiple words: “The house is big and overdesigned and furnished in a very show offey kind of way.” In other words, it’s ostentatious.

These “complicated” words are actually incredibly economical. Imagine what you can convey with ostentatious or fecundity. The latter word actually produces the smell in my senses. And how about “petrichor”? Not a word you’ll hear in a day-to-day conversation (although you should), it’s the fresh earth smell that rises when rain falls hard. It’s been one of my favorite words since hearing it in a podcast on the OED.

The right word can convey complex meaning. Consider “neophyte” (another favorite). It’s so much better than “rookie” or “new to something” because it adds the concepts of inexperience and naivete, creating a far more powerful image.

The words I love aren’t always economical in the “one word for several” sense. Take “erudite,” “stentorian,” and “bloviate.”  Each can be replaced by one or two simpler words (say “well spoken” for erudite), but they are more powerful simply because of how they sound. When I hear “bloviate,” I hear exactly what it’s supposed to convey. In fact, I have an almost instant image of a pompous politician sounding off emptily.

Or think of “eviscerate” instead of “ripped apart.” It’s not just the sound here but the inner part of the word – viscera – our guts. It makes it much more personal and therefore powerful.

I’m not talking about using fancy words when a simpler word will do. I’m totally opposed to that. In my consulting work, I always focus on writing in the simplest (i.e. non-corporate-speak) way possible. I’ll never write utilize when use will do!

But vocabulary has a power. It’s a way of connecting and understanding. (Imagine if we all had the same understanding of “socialism,” “patriotism,” or “capitalism”!) We’ve all heard that Eskimos have 100 words for snow. That’s apocryphal but I did read about a linguist who discovered that a tribe in a jungle area has over 50 words for “green.” We would have to write “the shade of green on the bottom side of a wet leaf early in the morning”; they can just use a single word that captures the same shade. That’s a powerful and economical word!

What about you? What are your favorite “complicated” words?

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