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Big Words

Why can’t we use enormous, whopping, super colossal, monster, humongous, big words in our writing?

I will happily admit that title was much too long. In fact, if I was editing this for a client, I’d advocate against strings of adjectives and recommend using one well-chosen word.

Depending on the purpose of the writing, I may also, or instead, advocate for plain English — i.e. when you mean ‘big’, just say ‘big’. There are already enough people in the world who try to make themselves sound clever and important by using ‘big words’ — just say what you mean and move on.

On the other hand, when I’m not trying to proofread or edit someone’s writing, I actually love big words. I don’t necessarily use them in everyday conversation but if they feel juicy on your tongue, or have a quirky meaning, or an intriguing etymology, then I’m hooked.

What is ‘etymology’?

Etymology (n) the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

Etymology fascinates me. So much so, in fact, that I’ve subscribed to Merriam-Webster’s daily etymology email (as if I don’t already get enough emails). I could write many, lengthy posts on the subject of the deliciousness of the history of words, and perhaps I will at another time, but I’ve become side-tracked.

When can writers use ‘big words’?

I wear several hats on this topic:

  • Editor Hat: I encourage writers to exercise caution with where, when and how they use them.
  • School Report Proofreader Hat: I push for the elimination of ‘teacher speak’ — that jargon designed to confuse parents. I also encourage short sentences and simple wording because you can say so much more that way and eliminate the risk of having your words misinterpreted.
  • Teacher Hat: I am constantly feeding the minds of my students with new, delectable words to fuel their imaginations and enhance their writing. (Believe me, there are only so many times in 30 stories you can put up with the word ‘fun’.)

Now for the conflicting hat—the one that chooses to stand apart from the others because it knows it is right!

  • Picture Book Author Hat: I want those big words in my picture book manuscripts — yet, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to take them out.

Pandemonium is perhaps too complex a word for a picture book.

Here’s the thing though — children are capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for. Why should we stifle their learning by dumbing down the words we use around them? Do we want them to be stuck on ‘big’ forever when what they really mean is ‘humongous’?

Parents and teachers, particularly teachers, are constantly looking for teachable moments. We want to engage children in the books we read by having discussions around language. How else are they going to learn the intricacies of their language and appreciate the true joy of words if we drag the literature they’re exposed to down to the level of: Colby’s class was noisy.

Surely you’d rather have that deep discussion with a child about this sentence: Colby’s class could be described with one word: pandemonium.

By all means, please, keep your adult writing jargon-free, and in plain English. But let’s encourage our children to wrap their mouths and minds around colossal words.

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