“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug” –Mark Twain
In the film, ‘My Fair Lady’, Rex Harrison’s character sang contemptuously of Eliza Doolittle’s lexical range: “Look at her”, he said, “a prisoner of the gutter – condemned by every syllable she utters!” His argument as a linguist was that he could empower her with social mobility if he gave her elocution lessons and changed both the way she spoke and the content of how she said it. It wasn’t just her accent or the regional dialect that ‘condemned’ her – it was her social background, class, lack of education, occupation, and gender, among a range of other factors that had locked her character into the trap of social deprivation and inequality. It was only through a hypergamous marriage that she could ever hope to socially mobilize herself.
Since the late 1800s, education and academic engagement is one mechanism that has sought to free many such Elizas from the gutters and prisons of impoverished lexical range. The aim has not been to simply raise the level of speech in society – far from it really – but to facilitate empowerment of intellectual thought, critical thinking and scholarly activity, which would also educate the voting public and hypothetically lead to economic and social amelioration.
Beyond those aims, words are simply powerful, create impact, and the good news is that we can choose whether we use a loaded language gun or remain languishing on our lexically limp lettuce leaf.
It’s not about keeping things simple for the sake of it, which can then evolve into dumbed down ‘Janet and John’ and a reduced capacity for intellectual reasoning. It’s about elevating our choice of vocabulary so that our strategic aims can be reached more effectively. Use of specialist, academic language permits precision and allows erudite and succinct discussion. Specialist vocabulary can reduce long-winded explanations and cut down the number of words used per sentence, thereby enhancing perspicacity: the beautiful art of obfuscation prevention.
Entering a professional world of scholarly thinkers requires that you are able to converse on an equal footing, with grace, dignity and aplomb if possible. What easier way to do so if you are able to put the vernacular to one side and slip into a more suitable choice of words. Engaging in an academic conversation through writing essays and production of papers also requires you to use a more intellectual register in order to accomplish your goals more effectively.
My top tip of the day with respects to this endeavor, is to read challenging scholarly articles and publications, looking up new vocabulary as it arises in a text, and then make attempts to turn this passive vocabulary into part of your active academic vocabulary. What new words have you learned this week? What new words and phrases with high impact will you try to use in your writing and academic conversations?
Below are some links to web-based resources that allow you to make incremental improvements in your word choice and phrasing. Please share any other useful links in comments.