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