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Saturday, February 17, 2007


Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Really big words.

This post is not about jargon. I am not opposed to jargon when used correctly: with the right audience, it can be appropriate to talk about “truncation”, “10-16s”, “co-morbidity” or “greens”. Jargon exists for a reason: when people work in the same specialized area, it makes sense for them to be able to talk about all the little things that most people would lump together in one general word like “sick”. However, it can create confusion when they try to use these words with other people. For example, I often hear journalists complaining that other people always talk in jargon. I laugh silently when I hear this, because journalists are among the jargoniest people out there. They just don’t realize it because they are constantly interviewing other people about their jobs, but never give interviews about their own jobs. Otherwise, you might hear something like this:

“The angle on this lede wasn’t in the pitch. Tell the slot to rewrite the deck. What do you mean, the cub got all this information on background? I won’t pay a kill fee.”

The point is, jargon is not necessarily bad.

Now, big words are another story.

Nobody needs big words. Nobody talks with big words, so you would think that this wouldn’t be such a big deal. Sadly, you would be wrong.

For various motivations, a significant percentage of the populace utilizes extraordinarily cumbersome terminology whilst they write. I’ve cogitated about this problem and have determined that they do this because they aspire to appear brainy. Regrettably, it has the opposite consequence. I’d more readily observe a comprehensively lucid message written in unpretentious language than a perplexing message that is designed to illustrate how clever the essayist is. It has become so appalling that there is at present an entire industry labouring to induce people to utilize a smaller quantity of words: it’s termed the plain-language industry. People no longer compliment each other on their unambiguous prose, they characterize individuals as plain-language writers. I’m not persuaded that this is either a beneficial thing or a distressing thing; on the one hand, it demonstrates that there is a particular value to unambiguous writing, but on the other hand, it prevents all of the other individuals from making an effort to write more clearly.

I think I’ve made my point.