D. J. Wexler
Recondite (adjective): very difficult to understand and beyond the reach of ordinary comprehension and knowledge.
Mugwump’, ‘vitiate’, ‘paralogism’ – It would not be a stretch to say 99% of the English-speaking population is unfamiliar with at least two of these words. This is not to say they represent some bar that must be cleared to be considered ‘erudite’ or ‘scholarly’, I am merely beginning a wider point. Society has contracted an aversion towards high-sounding words and – heaven forfend – consider those who use them snobbish or affected. But you see, we’ve got it all backward. Broader vocabulary leads to richer literary and conversational life. As such, there is a moral duty, a Kantian categorical imperative, to speak ‘up’ to our audience and not ‘down’ to them.
By speaking up to somebody I mean expressing oneself in a way that informs or teaches. Why assume somebody does not know a word when they may know a word? It is a strange fact of life that we treat our compatriots as deficient. By eschewing ‘obscure’ vocabulary we’ve done ourselves a disservice. These words we consider obscure are just uncommon, they are unusual. And an unusual word is only unusual until it isn’t.
Mindlessly extolling the virtues of ‘plain and simple’ language, society is saturated with logophobia. The use of complex or foreign words (like Latin or French expressions) is ostensibly characteristic of vainglorious elites keen to separate themselves from what they consider to be the chaff of society (possibly some truth to that), unfortunately, this problem is intractable and common to all cultures. Therefore, it is pointless to abjectly surrender to linguistic nihilism. We should not preclude ourselves from speaking reconditely just because the vain do. Avoiding complex language is an act of debasement. Being resigned to ‘casual’ language actually accentuates the social stratification elitists so desire so deeply. Put simply, the issue is not one of class or rank, it is an endemic inability to extricate the meretricious from the precise, and it will take effort to pull ourselves up and out of our benighted condition.
After decades of plain language doctrine writers and conversationalists have been held hostage to the lowest level of literacy. Another curious assumption rears its twisted head, why must the burden of intelligibility rest upon a writer and not the learning of the reader? A writer is ‘pretentious’, ‘abstruse’, ‘pompous’. A reader is never ‘uninformed’, ‘illiterate’, or a ‘philistine’. Neither writer nor reader should be treated in such extremes, a middle ground is necessary. This paralysing assumption is particularly problematic for those who write for large audiences, after all, who ex cathedra determine what is plain and simple if not the public (that lumbering arbiter elegentaie)? If the public sets the benchmark, and this benchmark tacitly endorses plain and simple language, we preclude ourselves from ever broadening our vocabularies; writers and speakers are reined in by the least literate. And so commences the downward schuss.
And contrary to popular belief, a word may appear convoluted when it is actually beneficial. Fewer syllables are not a necessary condition of good language. The right word is better than a bland sentence, and this right word, seemingly ‘uncomfortable’, is a bon mot. ‘Recrudescence’, ‘limpid’, and ‘inchoate’ feel unnatural because we don’t know what they mean. And they are only unusual because, well, we don’t use them. We should be distressed by our eagerness to slash at ‘excess’ verbiage, for our language is an Amazon, it is a heritage site of our humanity. We must overcome the social taboo of using uncommon words through common usage. When you begin an exercise routine, the first week is hardest, the second week is easier, and the third week is easier still; the same is true for words.
It is a shame today that so many of us spend hours craning over our phones, totally engrossed in the text we thumb through yet show no interest in cultivating our diction. We watch on in horror as youth literacy deteriorates, sliding further and further into decadence. They turn away from words and towards acronyms…and then deeper still into emojis. We can only wonder about the long-term effects of this stultifying behaviour.
And yet dictionaries accompany each of our screens. dictionaries are ubiquitous. If you carry a phone you carry a dictionary but as access to dictionaries has increased our willingness to consult them has decreased. Part of this is of course because there is no need to consult them. Why would you when ‘plain and simple’ is the regnant policy? However, like an economy, there is supply and demand. Flood the public with unusual words and you’ll raise literacy levelsraise its literacy. The product of this pedagogy will hopefully spur at least one newfound élan for, say, the Dickensian.
I cannot transfer my vocabulary to you through osmosis, and you, likewise, cannot transfer yours through to me. So, as in psychology, exposure therapy shall be our treatment! Embrace the highfalutin, the sonorous, the haughty! It is a public service. Break the chains of literary chastity. Douse the blush of verbal modesty Show some ankle! Dole out some flavour! Disseminate the word of Merriam-Webster and pay heed to this literary bull, for the more you say the more they’ll learn.
In the name of the verb, the noun, and the adjective,
D. J. Wexler is an Australian law student with a B.A. in history and philosophy. He is on Twitter @DjWexler.