Buckley-sized words may interfere with your message

William F. Buckley’s death gave media writers the chance to remind us all that they, like Buckley, know how to use words we don’t hear every day. The New York Times  found “polysyllabic exuberance” and “perspicacious.” The Washington Post took “erudite” and “trenchant” and used “polysyllabic,” too. The World Socialist Web Site (did you know there was one?) used a word I never knew existed: “encomiums.”

 But Geoff Nunberg, linguist for National Public Radio, points out the topper:  The Economist aptly called Buckley the “sesquipidalian conservative icon” — which means he was a lover of long words.

Buckley could get away with language like this, because we expected it from him. He also used just enough humor to keep from sounding insufferable.

Many of us, though, don’t have this luxury. When we try to use long or unfamiliar words simply because we think they make us sound more credible or more intelligent, we’re likely having the opposite effect. More often than not, those words and the stilted language that goes along with them get in the way of our message.

As Nunberg said,

“That’s the price you pay for using sesquipidalian words: The higher they soar, the further removed they are from the world of feeling and sensation on the ground below. And as Horace said, you have to set them aside if you want to touch the heart.”


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