Sesquipedality (1). Today: Generally. Sesquipedality is the use of big words, literally those that are “a foot and a half” long. Although the English language has an unmatched wealth of words available for its users, most of its resources go untapped. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 600,000 words, yet even highly educated people have only about 10% of that number in their working vocabulary. This discrepancy gives rise to a tension between two ideals. On the one hand, vocabulary-builders have long maintained that a rich personal word-stock is your key to success: — e.g.: “A rich vocabulary is the most common and invaluable possession of the leaders in every profession, in every commercial enterprise, and in every department of active living. . . . Vocabulary is so intimately tied up with success that from now on we might as well talk of the two as though they were one and the same thing.” Wilfred Funk, The Way to Vocabulary Power and Culture 1 (1946). On the other hand, writing guides are full of advice to shun big words — e.g.: “The more you surrender to the temptation to use big words . . . the further you are apt to stray from your true feelings and the more you will tend to write in a style designed to impress rather than to serve the reader.” John R. Trimble, Writing with Style 80 (1975). Which of these two views is correct? It’s entirely possible to resolve the seeming paradox and to hold that they’re both essentially right. Build your vocabulary to make yourself a better reader; choose simple words whenever possible to make yourself a better writer. Next: Traditional Approaches. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “A rich vocabulary has its embarrassments, but these are to be preferred to the embarrassments of poverty.” G.H. Vallins, Better English 11 (4th ed. 1957).
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