Long words can be daunting. Even for native speakers. The illustration above comes from The Japan Times, and reveals how the challenge is magnified for others.
I love learning new words. And, since these treasures frequently drift out of my vocabulary because I fail to use them, I often have the joy of re-learning unique words.
Sesquipedalianism is actually a genuine word which can be validly applied in a variety of settings. After all, haven’t we all encountered a sesquipedalianist or two, who uses especially long, and occasionally obscure words?
How many syllables are required before a word grows too long? To a monosyllabic individual, two might be deemed excessive.
Seriously, it’s not the length of a word that matters, it’s the word’s familiarity. For example, “familiarity” has six syllables, and everyone reading Mere Inkling knows its meaning. (I resisted saying “is familiar with . . .”) On the other hand, “carbuncle” is only trisyllabic, and yet the only people likely to know its definition are either those in medical professions, or unfortunate individuals who have suffered from one.
But it’s not only unfamiliarity that causes confusion; misunderstanding can result from a lack of context. Let’s take “trisyllabic,” a word even an active reader seldom encounters. As used in the paragraph above, the context (along with the prefix and root), provide us with more information than a person needs to recognize its meaning.
In a famous letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis included the following advice:
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Great advice, just as one would expect. However, this does not constitute a blanket rejection of “big words.” Lewis is simply reminding us that our prose must not be more complicated than it needs to be. Thus, the title of this column uses a precise word – rather than saying “Please Forgive My Practice of Using Long and Sometimes Obscure Words” – since Mere Inkling readers are quite capable of uncovering a definition if a particular word is unfamiliar.
Plus, as I hinted above, many of us enjoy expanding our vocabularies.
In the aforementioned correspondence, Lewis offered additional useful advice. Another dictum is: “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”
Here too the great writer is astute. However, this caution is not actually about the length of words. Lewis’ desire for clarity in communication leads him to reject “vague” words, which coincidentally happen to be longer than those he refers to as “direct.”
Using longer words than necessary is not, of course, always a good thing. While it comprises neuron-stretching play for word lovers, it can easily be misperceived by others as “showing off.” (Note: I’m not defending those cases in which the writer or speaker really are attempting to impress others with their verbal dexterity.*)
You can easily find collections of the longest words in English. While some cheat, including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” others are more scrupulous. Despite doing just that, I like the list at grammarly because of their definition of one of the words they include.
The estimation of something as valueless. Ironically, floccinaucinihilipilification is a pretty valueless word itself; it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.
I’m not currently planning on adding floccinaucinihilipilification to my personal vocabulary, but don’t let me dissuade you from doing so.
Learning new words often reaps extrinsic benefits. As a historian who enjoys learning about the Latin language, I found the following definition, and illustration, from the Cambridge dictionary quite interesting.
The act of considering something to be not at all important or useful – used mainly as an example of a very long word:
The honor of being the longest non-technical word goes to floccinaucinihilipilification.
The word . . . is “an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning ‘nothing.’”
Oh, and one final suggestion. When visiting the Cambridge site, in the likelihood you’ll someday wish to use this word in conversation, take a moment to make certain you learn to pronounce in the U.K. or American manner, as appropriate for your location.
* I am not here referring to the Irish bred Bay Colt for some curious reason named “Verbal Dexterity.”