Between teaching at Eastern and starting at Plante Moran, I endured a five-month stint as a waitress at Senate Coney Island in Livonia. I was a terrible waitress—frenetic and easily overwhelmed—and I had occasional lapses in focus. For example, one evening I was waiting on a couple. I took their order and headed over to retrieve their drinks. Somewhere between point A and point B, I decided that I, too, was thirsty, so I got myself a Pepsi and proceeded to drink it. That was when I noticed my table—my only table at the time—staring at me incredulously. I walked back with their drinks and said something to the effect of, “That gives new meaning to the word ‘apathy.’” The guy laughed, and at the end of the meal, he came up to me with a $10 bill. “You don’t often hear a waitress use the word ‘apathy,’” he said.
I’d argue that you don’t often hear anyone use the word “apathy,” but whatever—in this guy’s mind, poor service + a three-syllable word = big bucks/no whammies, and that was just fine with me. But when someone has the vocabulary of, say, Frasier Crane (who once sent me to the dictionary after he used the word “jejune”), it tends to have a polarizing effect. Some people, like my customer, are impressed. Others are irritated. I’m reminded of an instance where a friend of mine was working as a pharmacy assistant. A customer was trying to access a drug without a prescription, and at some point Shadia used the word “acquiesce.” “Ac-quee-what did you say?” he asked. “You think you’re smarter than me, using big words like that?”
Now, Shadia didn’t use that word to put on airs or make him feel inferior. She used it because “acquiesce” rolls off her tongue as easily as “roll” or “tongue.” She earned that word like she’s earned so many others—through years of combing through various books and conversations with similarly articulate people.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with smaller words. Here I have to, again, quote Stephen King: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” The same goes for speaking.
Do you remember that “In Living Color” skit featuring Damon Wayans as Oswald Bates, a guy who attempted to sound intelligent via big words but actually just came off as ridiculous? If not, here it is. This is an extreme example, but I think most of us can think of a time when we’ve heard a colleague or friend use a word that was clearly incorrect. For example, I have a friend who often says “exasperate” when he means “exacerbate.” I’ve never corrected him, but it’s all I can do not to quote “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
My vocabulary is constantly increasing, but each word is earned. I like the word “jejune”—I like it a lot, actually—but I don’t use it. Why? Because the only time I’ve encountered it is via an episode of “Frasier.” It would sound stilted and awkward coming out of my mouth, not to mention a little pretentious. A vocabulary is built over a lifetime, and the introduction of new words is earned over repeated encounters—not via word-of-the-day calendars (though those can be fun).
What do you think? Are you a sesquipedalian? Do you have an example of a time a friend or colleague used one word when he/she clearly meant another? And how great was “In Living Color”?