Tag Archives: word for writing with big words

Adventures in Grandiloquence: Laurence Urdang

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you are an avid reader, you have probably come across a few writers who possess a very large vocabulary and pepper their writing with big or fancy words when perhaps simpler words would suffice. So what do you call this use of big words (or what people call “SAT words”)? The best term is lexiphanicism, defined as the use of pretentious phraseology. Another term that word lovers like to use is “sesquipedalian loquaciousness.” That term is made up of two really big, fancy words: sesquipedalian (meaning “having many syllables, or use of long words”) and loquaciousness (meaning “excessive talking”). Of course these terms are technically archaic and, um, sesquipedalian. There are three other words that exists in most dictionaries: grandiloquence (or its adjectival form, grandiloquent), meaning “a lofty, extravagantly colorful, pompous, or bombastic style, manner, or quality especially in language.” The second is magniloquence, defined as the use of ornate, flowery language to convey simple things. Finally, the word fustian is defined as pompous or pretentious writing or speech.

Whether it reflects a genuine high level of erudition or simply showing off (let’s call it verbal pretentiousness), the effect is the same — it has you reaching for the nearest dictionary (which is not necessarily a bad thing — after all, that’s how you expand your vocabulary). Consider that the English language has more than one million words. The average high-school educated English speaker knows about 45,000 words (as high as 60,000 when including proper names and foreign words). David Crystal, a linguist and world-renown expert on the English language, provides these estimates of how many words people know: a person starting school: 500-6,000; a person without a formal education: 35,000; a high-school educated person: 50,000; a college-educated person 50,000 to 75,000. Thus, the grandiloquent speaker or writer is typically using words outside the more commonly used 75,000 words.

Case in point: Laurence Urdang (1927-2008), American lexicographer, editor and author of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966). Over the course of his career, Urdand wrote and edited more than 100 dictionaries. Consequently, he developed an extraordinarily large vocabulary. In the introduction to The New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced words, Urdang wrote a paragraph to summarize the book, to display (in a tongue-and-cheek fashion) his impressive vocabulary:

This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaftwhose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.

Can you translate this passage to simple English? What is your favorite grandiloquent author and specific passage?

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