On "Big" Words & Lexical Precision



Most have likely heard – and maybe even uttered at one point or another – the phrase big word. As in:


He’s such a show-off, using all those big words.


Or:


Did you just say “extemporaneous” out loud? That is a big word!


Well, sure. Extemporaneous is a “big” word in the sense that it’s sesquipedalian, which is just another word for describing words that are relatively multisyllabic; words that are – well – big.


But I don’t think that folks are using the adjective “big” to describe words that are in fact sesquipedalian. I think folks are using the adjective “big” to describe words that are used infrequently, especially outside of academic or specialized contexts; words uncommon enough that it can’t be assumed every interlocutor will know their meaning; words that have very specific, precise meanings that allow for the clear and concise expression of ideas.


In short, I think folks conflate the concept of “big” words with the idea of lexical precision.


What is meant, then, by lexical precision? Lexical precision describes:


the use of a semantically precise word or phrase over a word or phrase with a broad, generalized meaning to express a specific and intended meaning


Let’s examine some examples to illustrate:


The capricious nature of Colorado’s summer weather can make safely hiking in the high country precarious.


That sentence contains two words that – particularly when spoken aloud – might be described by some as “big”: capricious and precarious. We can re-write the sentence with more common words as such:


The crazy nature of Colorado’s summer weather can make hiking in the high country scary.


But semantically, this is not the same sentence. Both are “correct” sentences, in the sense that they appropriately utilize the English lexicon to express a valid, sound argument. But they are not equivalent in meaning; they do not convey the same idea.


Crazy is one of those English words that has become a semantic catch-all; we use it in a variety of contexts, to convey a variety of meanings and senses both positive and negative. But in its lexical evolution, the descriptor crazy has become imprecise. Take the following as examples:


Joey is crazy for Samantha.

That backflip was crazy!

That is a crazy solution.


That final sentence in particular is semantically vague; is the solution crazy good or crazy bad? Sure, we can potentially use the context in which the phrase is used in order to deduce it’s meaning, but swap crazy for innovative, unorthodox, revolutionary, or imprudent, and there’s no need to deduce.


A similar analysis can be applied to scary. Consider the following:


That salsa is scary good.

Today’s political environment is scary.

Lightning is scary.


Again, these are all valid ideas, but they are vague. They are imprecise. What is scary about lightning? Is it lightning’s ability to kill when making contact with a sentient entity? Is it the flash and thunderous boom that accompanies a strike? To say that lightning is scary leaves much to be guessed about the intended meaning.


The words capricious and precarious, on the other hand, have much more precise lexical meanings. If you look them up in a thesaurus, they both have plenty of synonyms, but few – if any – direct substitutes.


The Point


At this point, the reader is likely asking, “So what? Why does this even matter?”


Well, it might not, admittedly. Ethically, I suppose I should reveal that the use of the phrase “big word” simply vexes me, whether it’s been leveled at me personally, or at another in close vicinity.


But I don’t believe my vexation is inexplicable or unwarranted. I’ve frequently observed – particularly in certain contexts – the use of a lexically precise word provoke derision toward the user of the “big” word. Very few highlight the use of a “big” word, I think, without an implicit accusation of bombasticism. In the worst cases, these accusations are quite explicit.


Why is this a problem?


First, it pathologizes the conscientious, intentional deployment of a rich vocabulary, one that the speaker has likely earned through some effort over the course of a lifetime. It turns those with expansive vocabularies into linguistic perpetrators. To put it imprecisely: It makes advanced literacy uncool.


Second, it encourages the speaker to muffle her intended meanings through the use of “smaller” words – imprecise words like crazy and scary and awesome and cool – all in order to cater to an audience that is sometimes unwilling to ask, “Hey – can you repeat that word you just used? I’ve never heard it before.”


Certainly, part of our jobs as crafters of messages is to make those messages intelligible to our intended audience – particularly so that we can achieve our intended purpose through that message – but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking our audience to do a little work in understanding the message. Especially if that work entails simply asking for a definition, and especially, especially if learning is the result.


Note: Even more insidious than accusations of bombasticism is the patronizing surprise that some express when an uncommon, lexically precise word has been employed by another. As in:


Wow - sartorial is a big word. I'm impressed!


Such a response is congratulatory on the surface, but actually implies intellectual inferiority. These responses are pervasively leveled at marginalized groups. We could (and should) say much more about this phenomenon than there is space for in this piece.


Closing Thoughts


In sum, I think we should ditch the phrase “big word” entirely, and instead adopt an understanding of and appreciation for lexical precision. Without a doubt, some utilize the English lexicon ostentatiously and – in the worst cases – in order to intimidate their interlocutors.


But I believe that lexical precision is what many of those accused of employing bombastic language are actually striving for. Others simply enjoy utilizing the richness of their native language, or hearing the way a particular word sounds. Some revel in the physical sensation of pronouncing a word; there’s just something about the way ephemeral and sartorial and verisimilitude roll off the tongue, for example, that has me using them whenever they can be precisely employed.


And so, to those who have accused others – even jokingly – of employing “big” words, I ask you to refrain. If in conversation someone utters a word for which you don’t know the meaning, ask for it! I guarantee the word’s utterer will be delighted to share her lexical knowledge, and she might even be able to tell you where or how she learned the word.


If you find you can’t refrain from publicly highlighting someone’s use of a lexically precise word, at least swap the descriptor “big” for sesquipedalian. Depending on present company, that could at least spark an enjoyable conversation on the richness of the English lexicon.


And finally, to those who are charged with using a “big word”, I encourage you to ask your accusers just what, precisely, do they mean?