I was in my voice over class last week when it happened. I used a big word.
We were talking about status in terms of creating characters and in the attempt to contribute to the conversation, I used the word “capitulate”.
Is “capitulate” a big word? I’m not sure. At the time it didn’t occur to me that it was. But one of the other students made a dig about having to get out their dictionary. Apparently, it is a big word. And apparently, I’m an asshole for using it.
Big Word Assholes
There is this idea that people who use big words are trying to make other people feel bad because they don’t know the word. That they are being assholes.
Now, we all know people who do use big words on purpose in order to make others feel bad and themselves feel superior. When it happens, it’s usually done with an air of superiority and self-righteousness.
These people are annoying. And they are only showing that they have self-esteem problems of their own.
But most people who have big words in their vocabulary are not running around looking for people to hurt with their words. The big words they know are just words they have learned. Sometimes the big word can condense a concept into a single term, and to say it in smaller words can sound even more condescending.
There seems to be an assumption that there is a common vocabulary that is relevant to most, if not all, people. This is an incorrect assumption.
Everyone may have a baseline vocabulary, but their experiences modify it in ways that makes each vocabulary unique.
A mechanic may have a huge vocabulary around engines and how they work
A doctor may have a huge vocabulary, with most of it medically related.
A reader of historical romance languages may know esoteric words from the past. And they may use them without realizing that others may not understand.
People don’t necessarily choose their words with the common denominator in mind. The words they know are now a part of them. The words refer to something they understand. They are not weapons to be burnished at unsuspecting victims.
But, because there is a stigma against using big words, many people do their best to fit their words to their audience. But there are several problems with this:
- You don’t know your audience.
- It’s exhausting to try.
You Don’t Know Your Audience
The problem with trying to fit your words to your audience is figuring out who your audience is. If you just met someone, all you have to go on is first impressions. What they look like, how they hold themselves, and what they say.
This is not enough to go on.
Add in prejudices and biases, and you’re bound to make mistakes.
- Just because someone didn’t go to college, or even graduate high school, it doesn’t mean that they are not well read. Some people just don’t do well in educational systems.
- Just because someone did go to college, it doesn’t mean that they actually retained the knowledge, nor does it mean that they continued learning after college.
I know people who work at physical jobs and who live like monks just so they can put all their brain power into studying whatever happens to be fascinating them at the moment. Sometimes these philosophers look like homeless people. Sometimes they ARE homeless people. When I lived in Omaha, there was a bookstore in the Old Market that had an upstairs where the bookstore owners offered the homeless philosophers a place to sleep in the winter.
Point is, how are any of us to know anyone else’s vocabulary? And choose our words properly? We can’t. People mess up all the time. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re assholes.
Can we give each other a break?
It’s Exhausting to Try
Because of the stigma against big words, people often go out of their way to use small words all the time.
This is exhausting. It’s exhausting trying to figure out the best way to say something. It’s especially exhausting when you know a word that would explain it completely, if only the other person knew the word.
Many people feel like they can’t ask someone for a definition. I’m 57 years old. I’m too old to be worrying about looking stupid. Getting definitions is how you learn new words. Just ask for them. They will probably be thrilled to tell you. Asking them for definitions or more information tells them you’re a learner, just like them! You fit in!
If the person is obviously being an asshole, why talk to them in the first place? Get away from them, write down the word and look it up later. Their self-esteem problems don’t have anything to do with anyone else.
I went to a meetup last week with the Drunken Philosophy group in Seattle. I went with an agenda. I’d gotten it into my head that all people are naturally evil. I know that it’s irrational, so I wanted to have some experiences that proved me wrong.
I was worried that people would want to talk about whether the Earth is flat, or question whether the Holocaust actually happened. I did bring up my concern about the natural evilness of humans, but that spun off into free will and determination discussions.
Here I am, surrounded by people, most of whom have bigger vocabularies than I do. Or maybe I’m average. I have no idea. But it was so relaxing to not have to worry about my words and just connect and talk.
There was a full spectrum of people there. People who have been studying Philosophy for years, and people who are just starting out. And the people who were just starting out held their own. They asked for definitions and for the rationale behind certain arguments. We all fit in.
It was lovely.
Two guys I’d just been talking to got into a heated discussion about the concept of the multi-verse and how it relates to singularities and free will. I was lightly translating the argument for the baby philosopher. Then I felt compelled to tell him my theory. He just looked at me and asked, “How is any of this practical?”
It’s not practical. It’s a thought experiment. That’s what philosophy is.
I told him that sometimes the answer is not the important thing, it’s the question, and that philosophers tend mull over these types of questions. I also told him that for him, since he’s interested in the practical application of ideas, that that’s the direction he’ll go. And that’s cool too.
One evening, no worry about big words.
We’re Not All Assholes
We all have different vocabularies. We all have different experiences. While there are some assholes out there who like to use their vocabularies to hurt other people, they are not the norm.
My use “capitulate” wasn’t intended to be a dig on the other students in the class. It was just the word that came to me when I was trying to explain a concept on status.
Please, if you don’t understand something, just ask. People love to explain the things that they are passionate about. Add what they say to your own knowledge and vocabulary. Be like the Borg and add their distinctiveness to your own.
You know, those big words can be yours. And they’re free…