Big words may not be welcome in, say, copy for a nav menu that will be seen on a smartphone. They might not be practical for the UX design, they might not translate well into other languages by a machine, they might not even be comprehensible to the average user. They are rarely found on things meant for general public consumption, like billboards. We probably won’t ever find “opprobrium,” for example, on a billboard, because the average English-speaker won’t know what it means (plus, it’s rather long to read while you’re driving).
But big words have a place, and it’s not just on album covers.
Words like “pernicious” and “munificent” and “adumbrate.” “Ostracize” and “panacea.” Who uses these? When? Where? Why?
You’d think such words would have long vanished by this era of texting and Voice Dictation (a new way to send a telegram). And character counts. And well-meaning people like the one who told me when I was a child, “Don’t use big words! You’ll never get a boyfriend if you use big words!” (Maybe in some social circles. Someone could do a study with Tinder and OkCupid profiles to see when using big words is an evolutionarily maladaptive trait.)
It’s true that some words, like “pernicious” and “munificent,” have declined in popularity over the past 200 years.
But others, like “adumbrate,” are about as often used now as they were back then.
Meanwhile, “ostracize” and “panacea” seem to be, well, “ubiquitous.”
Why do some words remain fresh? Some might argue that we lose the layers of meaning contained in the word. Are there easier ways to describe their meaning with fewer letters or syllables? Sometimes no (panacea = cure-all, magic bullet), but often yes (ostracize = shun, exclude). Is this the ultimate triumph of the College Board (makers of the SAT), ingraining the importance of big words into our culture more deeply with each passing academic year?
Maybe. There’s more to big words than meets the eye and ear. They carry social weight. They can be jargon, a secret handshake for those in the club. They can suggest a gravity that sets a tone, a higher standing that wins credibility and respect.
But there are other reasons too. Some have fun sounds. Delightful enough that you’ll hear them turn up in stand-up comedy skits. Or in goofy valentines: One Valentine’s Day in junior high, a classmate of mine gave everyone playfully hand-crafted notes each featuring a big, silly-sounding word with its definition. (A few kids appreciated theirs, but most kids laughed at these vocab valentines and called the inventor a “geek” and a “nerd”—short, easy words for them to say, but surely with long-lasting, difficult consequences for their target.)
And sometimes, it can be just nice to know that these words exist. In high school, I subscribed to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day emails (I admit, to prepare for the SAT)…and though I typically forget the word as soon as I trash the message, I’ve stayed subscribed. It’s brought me a little joy every day for all these years to discover how beautifully specific our language can be. That a word exists to describe a dispute over words (“logomachy,” which sounds like it’d be a design term about logos). Or, my favorite of this year, “demiurge,” which sounds like you’re only kind of urging something or halfway feeling urged. As in, “You should use the bathroom first; I only have a demiurge.” (Actually, it’s a noun, an autonomous creative force or decisive power.)
The important thing is that all words, great and small, be used with care. Care as in, an earnest attempt to choose the best words for the person you hope to communicate with. The words might be big or small, common or obscure. But if you are effective, it will always be communicating “with” someone, not “to” or “at.”
Because communication is about reach and resonance—whether your audience is one million or just one.
Whether you’re producing a nav menu or a Bill of Rights.
Whether you’re holding a microphone or receiving a tiny, fragile valentine.