Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ms. thesaurus

My parents sent me a box of Halloween candy, which I finally managed to pick up from the post office today. Unfortunately, many of the peanut butter-filled eyeballs had melted or been otherwise harmed during transit, so it's kind of a gooey package. But still, they sent me pop rocks! and pixie stix :)
But now on to what I really meant to talk about: big words. Apparently I use them a lot. At the end of a rather boring day at the flower shop, my somewhat overworked co-worker briefly lost control of her mocking impulse and made fun of me for using unnecessarily big words, and specifically the word "disconcerted."
Although it is admittedly a little shocking to be mocked to my face ("My name is Ammie! I use "disconcerted" aaaaaall the time!" is more or less what I remember), mostly I'm just kind of... See, disconcerted would work perfectly there, right? But really, now I just wonder if this really is something that many people think about me, and how I feel about that. I don't really see the point of not using big words, but now I can't decide what constitutes "big" and what is merely "larger-than-small." Or, if you prefer, "excessive" as opposed to merely "sizable." Or something.
It reminds me of a story my dad likes to tell about me: When I was a kid, maybe in third grade, I told my parents that I had to try not to use big words so that the other kids could understand me and I would be able to make friends more easily. Is a large vocabulary really that off-putting? Does it form more communication barriers, at least sometimes, than it expands? I'm not planning on dumbing myself down this time, but perhaps I'll be a little more wary of "disconcerted" and keep my ears open.


Amanda said...

First, hi - I found your profile on OKC, thought you were quite interesting and followed the link to your blog. I've been lurking for about a week.

Regarding the use of big words, I also have been called out on it a few times. The first and most memorable was at a not especially surprising location. I worked at McDonalds after I graduated from my high school and during the first few months, one of my managers said to me something like, "You certainly use a lot of twenty-five cent words." Anyhow, we chatted about it and he told me that it didn't particular bother him but that many of the other workers might find it off-putting. I don't remember intentionally changing my vocabulary, but I did have to work harder to earn people's trust, more so because they assumed I was a snooty intellectual.

ammie said...

Yeah, I guess I'd never thought too hard about the barriers that can be formed by something like that. I'm not sure how I feel about it.
And hi, nice to meet you!

pulley-whipped said...

disconcerted is a big word? pshaw. next time she does that, say "my name is whatsherface and i don't know what disconerted means" then punch her. just kidding. but still, tell her to stop hating.

PocaCosa said...

I hang out with academics, so I'm NOT the person to answer this. :-/ I've noticed that, as I learn big and useful words, I use them more, because they're, uh, useful!! But I do feel weirder at, say, family reunions, where I catch myself using such words and then regretting it. I do think there's something to be said for being able to shift speech styles depending on audiences. But first you have to figure out what's even a "big word" -- to me, "disconcerted" ain't! :-)

ammie said...

I do also think "big" words are useful, and also hard to define. I think what really struck me about this interaction was that while I've read plenty of stuff about, for example, chicana feminists trying linguistically to relate to their more traditional families, I've never bothered to apply the same concept to myself in any sort of larger sense. The idea of language being defined by audience seems potentially problematic to apply on a daily basis, but also important in a social sense. But I think I'm making that slightly more of a big deal than it needs to be; as long as people can understand each other, I don't think it needs to be too fraught. I'm okay with being mildly mocked for using big words as long as we can still talk to each other, and I'm not going to change my daily speech because of it. But I am going to consider context a little more carefully in the future. Hopefully no face punching will be required :)

Madeleine said...

Your way of speaking is kind of like an accent - when people notice something different or unfamiliar, it brands you just a little bit as someone different, someone who uses a different set of vocabulary. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes less so - the difference between "doin' good" and "doing well" - but it always counts.