“Putting on Airs” or Expressing One’s Thoughts?

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Daniel’s word of the day on July 15, 2007, rhetoric, is an example of a useful word that some people might find offensive.


In the movie Alone With a Stranger, a man becomes furious when his brother uses the word rhetorically — “as casually as I tie my shoes!”

The detectives on Law and Order and characters in other series often remark ironically on words they consider to be out of the ordinary.

A strain of anti-intellectualism runs through American culture. Words can cause it to erupt–in real life and not just in television dramas.

In February 1999, a Washington D.C. bureaucrat, David Howard, remarked to other staff members that certain funding had been “niggardly.”

The word “niggardly,” as by now everyone is probably aware, derives from a Middle English word meaning “miser.” It probably came into English from Icelandic and has absolutely no connection with a racial slur with which it shares a syllable. Howard was expressing the thought that the funding in question was not just inadequate, but that the people doling it out were being unnecessarily stingy.

A staffer unfamiliar with the word accused him of having used a racial insult. The Mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, bombarded by outraged complaints, quickly accepted Howard’s resignation.

Commenting on the incident in an NPR essay (2/3/99), writer Cecilie Berry suggested that Howard had been guilty not of racial insensitivity, but of “putting on airs.”

Such a conclusion, it seems to me, is one more step in the dumbing down of discourse.

I’m not suggesting that one should use a big word for its own sake. As Mary pointed out in a previous article (Big Words Make You Sound Smart, Don’t They?), the purpose of writing is to communicate. In speaking, as in writing, we need to be aware of our audience.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t have to limit ourselves to some kind of basic word list for adults.

My own practice is to follow George Orwell’s six rules of writing, the second of which is:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Sometimes, however, the best word to convey what we mean may be a long word, or an archaic word. The glory of the English language is its vast vocabulary. Why do we have dictionaries, if not to look up unfamiliar words?

Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), came to the defense of the man who lost his job over “niggardly.”

Said Bond:

People should not have to censor their language to meet other people’s lack of understanding

Use short, familiar words when you can, but never forget that the best word is the word that best expresses your thought.

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7 thoughts on ““Putting on Airs” or Expressing One’s Thoughts?”

  1. This tip

    “People should not have to censor their language to meet other people‚Äôs lack of understanding”

    Is good for life

    People should not have to censor anything in what they believe to meet other people’s expectations

    Thanks as always

  2. As writers, we do want our readers to understand what we are saying so keeping it simple is probably best. A few years ago I heard that the average American read on a 5th grade level. That in itself is sad to me. I use a dictionary when I don’t understand what a word means. I also like the idea of increasing my vocabulary by learning new words. Thanks for your tips.

  3. I’d like to add just one thing: if you do use a long word, please make sure you use it correctly. Don’t write things like “a vertiginous temperature of -20 degrees.”

  4. Long words sound more professional IMO, but they’re not necessarily the best choice when trying to communicate effectively.

    Sometimes people fall into the trap of using big words for brevity’s sake. And that’s something I fight with often.

  5. David Howard should have said “parsimonious” instead of “niggardly”. I doubt that anyone would have accused him of anti-Protestant bigotry just because “parsimonious” sounds perilously close to “parson”!

  6. Hoy boy! I wish I had seen this article first. I just commented on Mary’s post, linked in your article, and I feel a little sheepish. I attacked her article as anti-intellectual, basically denouncing all that she stood for and blaming the moribund state of English on her and her alone. I realize now that I really should have directed my angst at a few of the other commenters on her piece. Damn you, Internet, you’ve done it again.

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