Do big words actually make you sound smarter?
The last time I heard it out loud was 1993.
Belting out this 28-letter monster was like a rite of passage. Kids said it all the time, sporting it as a “smart badge.” It was like a clear line in the sand that separated the second-grade intellectuals from the playground plebs.
But like it did with quicksand and pomegranates, elementary school made saying “antidisestablishmentarianism” seem like something you’d face more frequently in your adult life.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and smushing huge words into a conversation is actually quite the turnoff. So why’s it so hard for us to shake this bad habit in our writing?
Why do we think big words = high intelligence?
For many of us, it’s a wild worldview to shake.
Don’t big words make us sound smarter?
Shouldn’t we squish and squeezle as many big words as we can into our writing?
If we only use itty-bitty words, how the heck will people respect that we know what we are talking about?
So when we are staring down the blinking cursor, we hear our high school English teachers discouraging casual human-speak.
We’re so trained to think big SAT words “sound smart.” So we stuff simple sentences fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey.
We turn to them when discussing our area of expertise because we want people to immediately know we are highly trained, educated, and experienced in the subject matter we hold dear.
It’s so hardwired into our brains, that it’s challenging to turn off the spigot!
Let’s ask the experts: Three studies on sesquipedalian writing
Yes, we think big words showcase smarts. I tried one right up there.
/ˌseskwəpəˈdālyən/ adjective characterized by long words.
(Literally translates to “a foot and a half long” 😂)
So what did you think? Did my IQ skyrocket to the ranks of Einstein and Oppenheimer?
At first blush, it seems like you would give me a resounding “YES!” That’s probably why 58% of people admit to pulling longer alternatives from the thesaurus, even when they have no idea what the word means.
But things aren’t always what they seem.
Do big words really give us an upper hand? Let’s see what the experts say about sesquipedaliacs.
Are big words more engaging?
When WE use big words, we think we’re masquerading successfully as a genius.
But the minute we hear someone else drop a behemoth monster of a word, it’s almost a red herring for overcompensation. Alarm bells go off in their mind. Their dozen-letter dinger invokes immediate skepticism.
Half of people say they’ve actually tried to leave a conversation just because the other person was using too many big words.
Big words are great at running people off! They build a bigger divide between you and the person you’re trying to connect with.
If it’s a nosy neighbor—maybe you’d prefer they skedaddle. But when you’re trying to attract customers, clients, readers, or even friends, stick with a pocket-sized synonym.
Survey says…: ❌
Do people really view big words as a sure-fire sign of intelligence?
An amazing study, poetically named “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” took a handful of personal statements for graduate school. They presented the participants with the original version and a second version where they changed a third of the words to giant synonyms.
Readers believed the authors of the versions with simpler words were far more intelligent. Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the psychologist behind the study, came to one conclusion: there’s a “negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.”
Survey says…: ❌
Do big words serve a purpose that isn’t self-serving?
How about we dive into some ideational metafunction?
Guess what? You’re taking in some ideational metafunction right now. It’s just a wild way some academics came up with to say “written content.”
In “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences,” Michael Billig chastises his peers for participating in an arms race of complexity.
He argues that writers use unnecessary words to simply “demonstrate that we are professional social scientists, rather than ordinary people who happen to have wandered in from the rain.”
Meanwhile, the reader is left bewildered, assuming they’re left out of some inside joke. They sheepishly retreat, looking for your competitor who’s willing to explain things more clearly.
Survey says…: ❌
The verdict: Too-big words do one thing to our writing. They strip our sentences of feeling, turning them into lifeless, be-zombied versions of our lovable and approachable selves. And usually zombies mean one thing: RUN.
When you want someone to stick around (like a customer!), you’re better off explaining things in such a way that invites people to stay awhile.
Simple and crisp words totally plump with meaning are the real magic elements that make your writing obsessively readable.
Bottomline: Pick short, crisp, and pin-sharp words
There’s one crowd we all know is addicted to formal dreck: the government.
They love wielding that Ye Olde English that most of us need a legal interpreter to make sense of.
Turns out “NOBODY GETS IT” is a big problem.
So much so, that Vice President Gore handed out the No Gobbledygook Award to recognize government workers whose writing did not require a decoder ring. In 1999, Dan Clem of NASA won the prize for pioneering an effort to de-jargon the space agency’s Safety and Health Handbook.
🔥🔥🔥 Trending article: Oh so you're a smart one, huh? Don't let the "Curse of Knowledge" wreck your writing!
Remember: in many areas of business, our customers aren’t eggheads in the subject.
We need to communicate our thoughts and ideas to all sorts of people:
Entry-level folks who might conduct the initial research for their department.
Just because someone is a subject-matter expert doesn’t mean they want to fill their day reading content beefed up with Captain America super serum.
Decision-makers, even at the top of the C-Suite, aren’t always trained on the nitty-gritty.
All of these people come to you for expertise. Many specifically seek you out to guide them through an area where they aren’t crazy comfortable.
They want simple answers that begin at their knowledge level—not a homework assignment of new terms to look up in the dictionary.
Scaring folks away is useful in some situations.
But typically, in business, you’re interested in attracting and engaging with customers. So next time you reach for that Thesaurus, ask yourself, “why?”
Is it to unnecessarily complicate your thought?
To give yourself a perceived intellectual edge?
The best word choice might be the one you’re about to look up.