Vocab Lab: Big Words

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"Don't use big words."

Despite the well-meaning attempts of our teachers to help us develop a thorough grasp of English, we are constantly discouraged from venturing outside the narrow bounds of ordinary language.

Use a "vocabulary word" in class and feel the withering mockery of your classmates; drop a few sophisticated phrases into your presentation and watch someone accuse you of being pretentious or deliberately aiming to confuse. Oooh, using big words.

The implicit assumption in all this shaming of word-lovers is that by expressing oneself with panache one is "putting on airs," attempting to make the less verbally keen listener feel inferior. But for those of us who are mad about language, this is like suggesting that playing the piano well is an insult to people who aren't interested in Rachmaninov. Words are where we feel lighter than air, even if we suck at sports; language is where we have boundless riches, even if we're flat broke. Reveling in verbiage is an expression of joy, not a projection of superiority.

So imagine our frustration when we encounter "experts" in business marketing and communications who push this ancient message on us: "Don't use big words because ...

  • " ... you'll alienate customers."
  • " ... you'll sound like an elitist."
  • " ... you'll come off as a stupid person trying to sound smart."
  • " ... people will think you're trying to cloud the issue."
  • " ... dictionaries are for nerds."

Let's be clear: We're not encouraging you to use buzzwords. "Synergy," "solutions-oriented," "outside-the-box."

Words are essentially your only tool for getting business. So why would you fearfully embrace the most tepid and ordinary language?

Such fuzzy but important-sounding business jargon (the kind liberally tossed around by self-proclaimed experts) will likely water down your message. Invariably focus-grouped and market-tested, these vague, clichéd descriptors are everywhere — so their currency is substantially debased. Such terms broadcast themselves as prize-winning agriculture, but they are as ubiquitous and useless as weeds.

Corporate Web sites often deploy such language with the rote carelessness of a child reciting the pledge of allegiance. Here's a stultifying example:

[Company X] was founded with the business mission of providing best-in-class marketing communications counsel and services ... We utilize the most current and effective communications tools and methodologies available in today's business world. We are results-driven in every aspect of our work and take pride in our reputation for providing insightful, strategic communications counsel as well as meticulous execution of our marketing and communications programs.

Pow! Zap! And these folks specialize in branding, which means, I suppose, that they can infuse your communications materials with the same sleeping-potion language. Of course, we've all visited such excruciatingly cautious, by-the-numbers Web destinations. Do you ever remember anything about such online real estate? The companies' vast expenditures on elegant site architecture, authoritative logo creation and zippy Flash animation didn't do much to "brand" their identities on your brain, did they?

The use of buzz words is ostensibly intended to make companies and entrepreneurs sound distinctive and strong, but it reeks of conformity and verbal meekness. Isn't the point of branding to pop, to stand out by delivering a pleasurable sense of surprise? You'll never do that by listening to the marketing gurus who misrepresent their petting zoo of shopworn terminology as a wildlife preserve of leonine, lead-generating language.

Whether you're developing your Web presence, honing copy for print ads and billboards, sending e-mail or making your appeals by phone, words are essentially your only tool for getting business. So why would you fearfully embrace the most tepid and ordinary language? You want the words that describe what you do to crackle, to brim with invention. Most readers probably won't crumble upon encountering the stray unfamiliar word, so be brave. Aim for the unexpected. If you find yourself mechanically trotting out a buzz word, stop — and take the extra moment to select more visceral vocabulary. Employ verbs with velocity, adjectives with aroma. If you're stuck, a remarkable resource is within easy reach. We're not going to give you a glossary, because the point is to find the words that work for you.

Ultimately, the fear of big words is unwarranted, because people actually love the audacious use of language.

Ultimately, the fear of big words is unwarranted, because people actually love the audacious use of language.

Cast your eyes anywhere in the culture — you'll find crossword fanatics spending their downtime stretching their minds, rappers hunched over their notepads in pursuit of the knockout rhyme, airline passengers devouring intricately wrought novels, coffeehouse poets wringing stanzas from their laptops, political speechwriters seeking that magical fusion of homespun wit and heroic gravitas. The world is hungry for vivid, bracing, thoughtful, sincere communication. Discerning clients and consumers are drawn to brands that radiate vision and courage; they flee from followers who dredge their discourse from the bargain bin. We cannot afford to dip our toes into the pool of language — we must dive in.