Don't you love it when a word comes into vogue and everyone starts using it, as though it's been in their vocabulary for years? Like "parameters." All of a sudden, it's chic to know your parameters.
This ability to toss about new words isn't developed overnight, however. Word-chic must start at an early age. I remember admiring my older brother's obscene vocabulary and longing to master it. I never knew the meaning of the words he used. It was the exotic sound that I liked; I wanted to feel the authority he seemed to gain.
By the time I reached high school, the new objective was to be "mature." There was intense competition to discover sophisticated words no one else had ever heard. When one classmate came to school with "ubiquitous," we spent days of bizarre verbal antics, making every subject of discussion in need of such a deluxe adjective.
In my mother's nursing books, I found gems such as "scrofulous" and "libido." We used the former to describe boys we didn't like, the latter in descriptions of boys we did. But whatever the word of the week might be, to toss it around gave us a sense of belonging. In college, knowing words was serious business and the classroom was a jungle of vocabulary mystique. And it was no longer a single word that carried weight. It was the elusive ability to master a group of words, all strung together in a proper sequence that had meaning.
The most accomplished word man on campus was a skinny senior in my European history class. I had the utmost admiration for him because he had a handle on words. He could say, for example, "The body politic sought essential enfranchisement," and I was dazzled. A whole sentence that sounded obscure.
But what did it mean? I would sink low in my seat and hope that I wasn't expected to know. It wasn't until I was a senior that I realized he hadn't said anything more complicated than "folks wanted to vote." His talent was in making a simple idea sound complex, and we all fell for it.
For a couple of years after graduating from college, I continued to pursue words and their careful arrangement into elegant sentences. I used "body politic" as often as possible. Then, one day, I was talking to a man who had no education beyond ninth grade. As I danced circles around him with my magnificent vocabulary, he looked at me kindly and said, "I don't understand a word you're saying."
His candor was a refreshing jolt. Was it really necessary to entangle all meaning in gaudy words? Language, after all, was meant to facilitate communication, not hamper it. And if complicated words could obscure something very simple, perhaps it was a greater accomplishment to say something complicated using simple words that conveyed the idea immediately.
Now I was able to relax around a grim intellectual who defined every aspect of life in terms of a "plethora" of one thing and a "dearth" of another. Or the intense PhD at a cocktail party who would muster up "egregious" whether discoursing on Vietnam or rush-hour bottlenecks.
The word droppers of the world no longer seemed brilliant. They seemed silly, forever bogged down in polysyllabic sludge.
I still enjoy ostentatious words and love coming across one I've never heard before. I look it up right away because there is something delightful about being familiar with it, even if I never use it. Somehow it feels good if you recognize a blockbuster like "ratiocination" when it pops up on a printed page.
No one over the age of 25 should clutter up a sentence with the likes of "ratiocination." But if you have children in college, you might call their attention to the fact that this six-syllable word has a simple meaning that can be made obscure. There might be some use for it in a European history class.