Big Words We Can Use

Posted on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, at 3:35 pm

To many Americans, big words are an affront. People who use fancy words are trying to show us up, flaunting their education and intelligence, rubbing our noses in our own shortcomings.

It’s true there are people who use their vocabularies to intimidate. It’s a shabby tactic, and it’s sad how effective it can be. Many a faulty argument has been won by the side with the glib, silver-tongued wordsmith.

Still, a highly developed society needs big words. Most multisyllabic words combine two or more smaller words to express complex ideas that come about as a culture copes with the world’s intricacy, uncertainty, and inscrutability.

In the end, big words take up far less space than repeatedly articulating the complicated concepts they represent. Not so long ago, paranoid was an exotic word that only intellectuals used. (It’s from the Greek para: “amiss, incorrect” + nous: “mind.”) Nowadays even seventh-graders use paranoid. The culture needed a word that could sum up, in a few pithy syllables, “having an irrational belief that you’re being persecuted.”

So below are several big words that, like paranoid, might come in handy in certain situations. The problem is how to get them into general usage. If you take a shine to any of these words, try slipping one in around friends who wouldn’t hate you for it and might even ask you what it means.

Pareidolia  You know how every so often you read about people who see Jesus Christ in a tree trunk? Or some woman in Ohio who keeps a swirl of moldy Cheez Whiz in a vault because she sees the visage of Elvis? That’s pareidolia: the phenomenon of finding the familiar in an improbable place.

Misology  This is a word for our times. It means hatred of reason, logic, enlightenment. People who oppose higher learning and progress used to be dismissed as fools. Now a potential voter’s misology is something many politicians pander to.

Sesquipedalian  This really long adjective means “really long.” It was coined to describe big words, so it is what it means. It can also refer to someone who uses words that are really long, maybe too long.

Billingsgate  Foul or abusive language. It derives from a rowdy fish market in seventeenth century London. It’s innocuous-sounding and obscure enough to work to your advantage if you’re ever sitting with your family near a foul-mouthed sot who won’t shut up. “Please, dude, go easy on the billingsgate, huh?” OK, that probably wouldn’t work, but you tried, and let’s hope it sounded mild enough to avoid a drubbing.

Prelapsarian  If you describe a garden as prelapsarian, you’re praising its unspoiled loveliness, not criticizing it for being dated or out of fashion. We get this word from theology. It’s meant to evoke the state of innocence before the Fall of Man.

Paraprosdokian  One or more sentences that end in an unexpected way. Here’s a fine example: “The car stopped on a dime—which unfortunately was in a pedestrian’s pocket.” Bet you never saw that coming. (Neither did the pedestrian.)

Orthoepy  It’s supposed to be or-THO-a-pee, and by telling you that, I sort of defined the word: it’s the study of proper pronunciation.

Callipygian  Here’s a strikingly euphonious alternative to leering-frat-boy language. It means “having shapely buttocks.” I think I prefer it to badonkadonk.

Tom Stern

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