Big Words

I used to work with a guy who liked to use big words. One of his favorites was “pulchritude.” It means “physical beauty,” which is certainly a nice thing to have or to behold. But it sounds like it means something else. A foul smell, maybe, or a state of physical decay. Imagine seeing that word for the first time. If you think it describes something bad, you can’t possibly understand what the author meant to say.

“Notoriety” is a different kind of word. It’s used interchangeably with “fame,” but it shouldn’t be. If you have notoriety, you’re notorious. You don’t become notorious for doing the right thing. You probably want to achieve some level of fame in your chosen pursuit – we all do. But we don’t want that subset of fame we call notoriety.

What happens when you use words like these in your own communications, in your emails, blog posts, articles, and books? Part of the audience will misunderstand your message, because you’ve used words that don’t mean what most people think they mean. And part of the audience will dismiss you because you’ve used a word in a way that suggests you don’t know its actual definition.

Between those extremes is language that conveys exactly what you mean to say, that can’t be misinterpreted.

Think of one of the most famous declarations of the twentieth century, delivered by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Complex thoughts can be expressed with simple words. And simple thoughts can be expressed with words that make them seem profound, if not magical. But nothing worth saying can be expressed with words you or your intended readers don’t understand.

Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., is a journalist and author or coauthor of many popular books about strength training and nutrition, including, most recently, The New Rules of Lifting for Abs with Alwyn Cosgrove. A former fitness editor of Men’s Fitness magazine and fitness director of Men’s Health, he’s contributed to a long list of newspapers and magazines, including Shape, Men’s Journal, Better Homes & Gardens, and Fit Pregnancy.

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  • Busy Man Fitness Nov 17,2010 at 12:25 pm

    Well said,

    Confusing your audience will NEVER help them much unless you are embedding hidden content on a recording and you are hoping a few people get the inspiration to research your choice of words in a dictionary.

    However, consider this…

    If you, in the midst of speech, say something like this:

    “She was so amazingly beautiful, she had such pulchritude, that she was a glowing wonder to everyone who saw her.”

    You not only pre-define your confusing vocabulary, but you demonstrate to be someone having a higher vocabulary. This can psychologically gain trust from people looking to have an intelligent guru with a large vocabulary (diction fans and English Majors).

    Of course, this is very easy to do when writing because you have the aid of an online dictionary.

    It however, is VERY difficult to do in speech, when you are in the moment and you don’t have time to think of the proper way to arrange your sentences.

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    The secret to a complex life is simplicity, and avoiding obfuscation and sesquipedalianism at all cost is a good start.


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