Funny You Should Say That! Big Words? Big Deal
How to deal with linguistic social climbers.
By John Cadley
I have no problem with people who try to impress me with big words. I just smile and say, “Your remarks are so sesquipedalian.” They don’t know if they’ve been complimented or insulted, and I like to leave it that way. If they want to impress me with big words, they’d better know the word for using big words.
Rather, my problem with these linguistic social climbers is that their choice of smarty-pants verbiage is so anemic, they drag out words like “inchoate” and “jejune,” which to me are really parodies of themselves. You use those words when you’re making fun of people who use those words. And we all know who those people are. They subscribe to the New Yorker and have a job in “communications,” which usually means they write grant applications for the local arts council. And in case you’ve ever wondered who submits those long-winded letters to the New York Times…yeah, it’s them.
These are the people who also say “arguably” a lot. Whenever I hear that word I want to flick them on the back of the ear. What they’re really saying is, “If anyone cared to argue with me about this I’d beat him like a dirty rug,” implying a superior level of intellect and erudition that we will have to take on good faith since the argument never actually takes place.
I have a couple of problems with this. First, to say that something could be argued is to beg the question: What can’t be argued?! Go observe a married couple for 10 minutes and you’ll find that the list of arguable topics stretches twice around the solar system.
Secondly, it’s just so unoriginal. These people all read the same magazines, pick up the same verbiage and use the same shop-worn show-off words. If they really want to display some serious language chops, they should use the word “argufy,” as in, “Bill Clinton is argufiably the first president to be married to someone who might have been president if he hadn’t acted like the president in support of her bid to be president.” Argufy means “to argue or wrangle, esp. obstinately, over something insignificant” – which pretty much describes 99.9 percent of all arguments that have ever taken place. Again, go ask the married couple.
These people also use terms like ipso facto, de rigueur and sine qua non to make you think they know a foreign language, even if they don’t always know which language it is. And they are inveterate doers of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. One of their favorite stratagems is to lure you into a game of Scrabble so they can put down words like “pari” and wait for you to challenge. Which you must do, by the way. If you don’t, the know-it-all who is bursting to divulge all he knows will in fact burst and then you’ll have a big, fat mess to clean up. (Pari means “a raw silk weight,” by the way – whatever that is.)
Oh yes, they’re also fond of ending some astute observation with “if you will.” If I will what? And what if I won’t? Or else they say “as it were,” as in, “I had a brief conversation with him and he seemed sort of non compos mentis, as it were.” That’s like saying, “I talked to this guy and he seemed a little crazy, but did you notice the cool way I said it?” Well, yes, I suppose…if you think it’s cool to blow your own horn at the expense of someone with a mental illness.
My advice to these people is: If you’re going to use big words, study the master and do it right. I am speaking, of course, of the late William F. Buckley Jr. Now there was a man who could whack you over the cranium with a polysyllabic two-by-four and make you like it. Mr. Buckley used words like “chiliastic,” “epigone,” “ferula” and “satyagraha” with a poise and confidence that left you certain no other word would do. He called them “out of town words,” which in itself shows a depth of imagination lacking in so many word-wealth wannabes. I urge them all to read Mr. Buckley’s books and essays, watch videos of his old TV program, and practice the raised eyebrow and serpentine darting of the tongue that punctuated Mr. Buckley’s bon mots so effectively. Then, and only then, will they hope to achieve that certain je ne sais quoi which is the mark of a true sesquipedalian.
John Cadley is an advertising copywriter in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.