A Literary Phobia

hipposWhat in the world does this protracted word mean?


From the suffix, we can assume that it refers to some sort of “fear.” But fear of what? Hippopotami?

No, this lengthy word doesn’t refer to the African “river horses” from which it derives its beginning. This peculiar construction describes nothing other than a fear of long words!

I know people who find long words daunting . . . but none who have admitted to be in fear of them. I myself am a bit intimidated by unfamiliar words that I have to pronounce in front of others. (I recently visited a writing group that caught me off guard with their practice of reading one another’s work out loud. Not only was I the first person expected to begin reading the first article critiqued that morning—it included a number of words from French cuisine with which I was unfamiliar.)

I don’t mind encountering unfamiliar words in a text (that I’m reading privately), especially when the meaning is evident from the context. In fact, I often enjoy the introduction, since it expands my own vocabulary.

The fact his, however, that many very gifted writers warn their readers to avoid lengthy or complicated words.

Just last week I contrasted George Orwell’s writing advice with that of C.S. Lewis. Orwell said,

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”

C.S. Lewis, included in his short list of advice the encouragement to,

“Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one.”

While these suggestions may “sound” identical, they are not. Orwell is concerned here with simplicity (rather than brevity, per se). Lewis, though, is advocating clarity.

Lewis does not object at all to using a multisyllabic word. He merely argues that the choice needs to be one that helps communicate rather than confuse. Allow me to share a simple example. Following Lewis’ counsel, one of these sentences would be problematic, while the other would be okay.

Life is all about love.

Experiencing contentment and joy relates directly to one’s ability to offer, and receive, affection from other human beings.

Obviously one sentence is far more complex than the other. However, it’s meaning is quite clear. The simpler, five word sentence is so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. For example, in addition to the alternative above, it might mean (to its writer):

Without a foundation of self-love, we cannot experience life to its fullest.

     or . . .

At the Final Judgment, it is only our acts of love that will pass intact through the “purifying fire.”

     or . . .

The more people with whom you can “sow your wild oats,” the happier you will be.

The Government Intervenes

Amazing as it may seem, the United States government actually has a website devoted to promoting simple language: plainlanguage.com. It exists to help implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While the effectiveness of the statute is debatable, it’s intention is praiseworthy.

On one page it directs agencies to avoid complex words. Instead of “endeavoring to assist,” writers are told to use “told to help.” While that is absolutely commendable in governmental documents, I prefer a bit more flavor when I’m reading for pleasure.

I strongly encourage anyone suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to seek professional help. This is especially true for those who desire to express themselves clearly. We need never fear a lengthy word—as long as we are using the right word!

9 thoughts on “A Literary Phobia

  1. That is wild. I’ve never heard that word before. It was a good idea, whoever came up with the name for this phobia, to make it a very long word. Personally, I enjoy using smaller, direct words myself. So, I found this post most amusing.

  2. I believe it was Lewis (although I’m not 100 percent sure) that something to the effect of “if you can’t express your subject in single syllable statements, you don’t really understand it.” Anyone know what I am alluding to here? I believe I got it from philosopher Peter Kreeft, but he said it wasn’t his originally…

    What a word, I will practice saying it so it just “rolls off of the tongue…” Ha!

  3. Educators used to laugh they knew when a student got a dictionary or thesaurus for their birthday or Christmas – their writing suddenly had so many new and longer words.
    In sales, there used to be a phrase: “If you can’t scribble your idea on the back of your business card, you don’t have a clear grasp of the concept.
    I love your posts about words and writing.

  4. Somehow I missed this, first time around. I think the reader, in WordPress, must be flawed (because it couldn’t possibly be my brain!)
    I agree, though. I think the plain-word act is a good idea, so far as it cuts down on jargon and less-accessible language, and while I like plain and direct prose, the right long word is worth far more than the wrong short one!

  5. Pingback: Contests, Lists, and Long Words | Thousand Mile Walk

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