Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Question About Big Words

How do you like to be treated when you’re confronted with a new, big word?
Do you want the speaker or writer to go ahead and define it without your needing to ask? That is, do you want it assumed that you need it defined?
Or would you rather have it assumed that you know what’s going on around you and that you know the word, too.

I love words and I am quite pleased with the big ones. I’ve been reading the dictionary since I was seven. It never lets me down.

Today I have on my desk the most wonderful resource ever: The Writer’s Digest Flip Dictionary, Writer’s Digest Books, copyright 2000 by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It lets you look up the definition of a word to find the word you need. It lists various alternate words for the one you think of using. It lists 80 types of fruit. If you need to know what to call the front of building you look up “front of building”(p. 268)and learn you have the choice of façade or frontispiece.

Here’s the issue. I wanted to describe someone as “aunt like” but didn’t know the word. Given that we have “avuncular” I knew there had to be the female equivalent. I looked up aunt in the Flip Dictionary and found “amitular” and used it.

We hear the male side of the language all the time: avuncular, virile, etc. But the distaff side? Not so much. Few people have in the normal course have heard amitular and how many of us know the female equivalent of virility is muliebrity? As an aside to my distaff readers, if you’re ever called mulish I say smile and say thanks.
The only exception I can think of to male-focused language is cattle are collectively and rightly called cows although it does specifically refer to the female.

Anyway, back to my point. My reader didn’t know the word so had to ask. That’s fine. But it’s made me wonder how to approach the use of unfamiliar words. Most of the time I’d rather let it be assumed I know and let me ask if I don’t.
How about you?


Fortune Cookies said...

if I don't know a word, I immediately look it up. Either dictionary, google, whatever is available to me at the time. If I'm in a meeting, I'll take note of the word and look it up once I'm back at my desk (don't want to look silly in front of the boss. I love words too, and always enjoy the opportunity to learn new ones!

Leah J. Utas said...

Hello Fortune Cookies. Good for you for your curiousity and willingness to learn. I wish more people were like you.

the Bag Lady said...

I, too, love words. If I come across one that is unfamiliar to me, and can't figure out it's meaning from the context of the sentence, I will look it up.
Really need to get one of those flip dictionaries...the older I get, the more frequently I find myself floundering around for a word!
Good post, dfLeah.

Leah J. Utas said...

Thanks, df Bag Lady. Yes, age is a factor, too. I find my mind going blank at the darnedest times.
I strongly recommend the Flip Dictionary.

the Bag Lady said...

Do they have a pocket-sized version so the Bag Lady can use it in every day conversations? :)

Leah J. Utas said...

I don't know, df Bag lady. It's worth looking into.

Lethological Gourmet said...

Leah, love the post! I love words myself, and I remember in 11th grade we had to go and get Word Power Made Easy and learn the words. Perspicacious is still one of my faves.

Anyway, my vote is to assume the person you're speaking to knows the word. Usually they'll let you know if they don't. Sometimes they're a little embarrassed about it (that's why I try not to use crazy-big words when speaking). But I know that if someone says something then assumes I don't know and explains, I feel irritated. I know they're trying to be helpful and I appreciate that, but would rather they didn't automatically explain, as I have no trouble asking. Similar to this is guys who assume I don't know the rules of baseball just because I'm a girl (woman, whatever).

Have you seen this site:

Missicat said...

I immediately look up an unfamiliar word if I can't figure it out. I love trying to break down a word into parts to see if I can "crack the code".
Everyone needs a hobby, right??

Leah J. Utas said...

Dang you, Lethological Gourmet. Now I'll never get off the Internet. What a great site. Thanks so much for directing me to it.
I hear you, Missicat. I break down words, too. I feel sorry for all the kids who went through school not learning phonetics. I think they were robbed.

the Bag Lady said...

Why doesn't that phrontistery link work for me?

Lethological Gourmet said...

That's strange, I can't seem to click on it either, Bag Lady. But if you copy the link into a new window, it'll take you there.

I had a random blog a while back that I started off using weird words and relating them to the news of the day, or a holiday. So I spent lots of should-be-work time looking through the lists for just the right word, but then it doesn't seem like that many people find weird words fascinating. We must be the strange ones :)

Leah J. Utas said...

df Bag Lady, what LG said. Paste it to your browser and click away.

Reb said...

Words are wonderful things! Being able to break them down to their root and try to figure out the meaning from there is interesting. I think we might be the last generation that was taught to do that.

I suppose we sound like the parents bemoaning the fact that Latin was not being taught to their children, but "HUKD ON FONIKS" and the "No child left behind" campaigns have done a lot of damage.

I am all for looking up words I run across that I don't understand. Of course that usually means I am gone from the book looking up other stuff for awhile, but I always return to the book.

I think it is safest to assume that your readers are capable of using a dictionary or something to find the meaning.

Oops, this got long, sorry!
LG, thanks for the link!

Leah J. Utas said...

HUKD ON FONIKS-- gaaaaahhhh!!!!!

Reb, you had a lot to say on the matter and that is welcome here.

Thomma Lyn said...

I love learning new words, and if I run across one which is unfamiliar to me, I look it up, either online or in the dictionary.

And I'm like you; I'd rather someone assume I know the word, and if I don't, I can ask.

"Amitular" -- yeah! Thanks to you, I've learned a cool new word! :)

Hilary said...

I pretty much echo what the others have said. I suspect that most, if not all of your regular blog readers would feel the same. Theres a wealth of online lookups to access if something stumps us - in reading or writing.

Leah J. Utas said...

TL, I even look up familiar words sometimes, just to make sure I'm using them right.
I know you'll give amitular a good home.

Hilary, thanks. And thanks to everyone for your responses.

Cousin Rikk said...

Sorry, Cousin, but your source was not well edited:

frontispiece Show phonetics
noun [C]
the picture which faces the page of a book with the title on:
A photograph of the author forms the frontispiece to the book.

(from Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

Nought to do with buildings, I'm afraid. I agree with the other comments: if I don't know, I ask; if I use a word that my listener doesn't know, I expect him/her to ask.


Leah J. Utas said...

Hello Rikk,

Hmm, not sure what to make of that, but I appreciate your taking the time to advise me.
Thanks for your opinion on big words.
I have no trouble asking when I don't know.

Cousin Rikk said...

You're right, in architecture, a frontispiece constitutes the elements that frame and decorate the main, or front, door to a building; especially when the main entrance is the chief face of the building, rather than being behind columns or a portico. My point was that facade and frontispiece are NOT synonyms, which is the impression your Flip gives.

Leah J. Utas said...

Cousin Rikk,

I think Flip's point is it gives you a list of possibilities to go through to help you find the right one.
And thank you for the explanation of frontispiece in architecture.
I not only had no clue, I did not know that I had no clue.