My friend Monica used the word “prophylactic” in its classical sense (meaning “preventative”) the other day and it got me thinking about using words and the flack I occasionally take for my vocabulary. When you read a lot, you can’t avoid learning lots of words. When you write, it’s an occupational hazard. And it just so happens that I am a fan of words and have a natural attraction to them. Yet if I am in a meeting at work and use a word like “opprobrious”, it can stop the meeting cold, which surprises me. Didn’t anyone else in the room ever take the SATs? I generally get one of two reactions:
- The oooh, that’s an impressive word, I’m going to have to look that up, reaction; OR
- Well what the hell does that mean and why don’t you just say what it means instead of using a fancy word. Force me to go look something up online, boy I’ll tellya…
And it often seems like I get the second reaction much more frequently than the first. The fact is that I try to use the most appropriate word to convey my meaning. But more to the point, English has a lot of words and way back when I took the SATs, it seemed like I had to memorize all of them. Not one to waste an experience, I kind of made a promise to myself that I wasn’t simply going to learn all of these words for the sake of a test and then forget them the next day. I was going to use them, by god! If the producers of standardized tests think that I should know the meanings of words like “meretricious” and “contumely”, well, then I was not only going to know them, but use them. And serves them right, too, for forcing them on me in the first place.
Still, it seems like I often get a negative reaction to using a full vocabulary, as if using the words you learn is a sign of pretentiousness or something. To me it is simply a sign of memorization, no different from the fellow who can reel off baseball statistics from memory. No one complains about that guy.
The one place where I am more careful about my vocabulary is in my writing, but in that case, it is more due to the fact that written English is a different beast from spoken English, and in fiction, some of the words that I would use in conversation would only serve to confuse the story.
Anyway, I applaud Monica for her sagacity in diction the other day. I wish more people enjoyed words as much as we do.