On Saturday, during one of the college football games, one of the TV commentators described a hit on the field as being pernicious in intent. He repeated himself as he declared that #22 on the defense was filled with perniciousness as he set his sights on that wide receiver.
The other commentator asked, “what do you mean by pernicious?” The reply to his question was funny, but typically off putting: “Pernicious means to have intent to harm or destroy. I can’t believe you don’t know what that means, maybe you should have come out of college early for the NFL after all!” They both laughed and moved on to simpler language for the rest of the game.
Why did the commentator use ‘pernicious’ in the first place? I suspect that somewhere in life, he learned this word, realized many others don’t use it much and loaded it into his smart-pants arsenal. He probably thought that by using that word, he’d come off smarter and teach everybody a new word. That’s not really how it works in the real world. In fact, a study at Princeton conducted by psychologist David Oppenhemier concluded that the more flowerly or smarty pants your language, the less intelligent you are perceived. Really.
This makes sense to me. If I use language with you that you don’t understand, I use words to put myself on a pedestal whereby you must look up to me. This pushes you away from me, and often causes you to believe that I am purposefully trying to impress you. That pushes us further apart, and usually you’ll conclude that I am at best book smart. This is why I use very simple language in my writing and during my keynote speeches. I want to speak to every body in the room in a common venacular that everyone understands. People connect with visuals, emotions and language. If they disconnect with language, you’ll usually lose them eventually. Lofty language can alienate more often than it educates.
I’m not saying that you should only use high school level language. In many cases, you can find a word that is more specific or illustrative than common talk. Instead of saying that someone told a story in a moving way (general), one could say that she was ‘cinematic’ in her story telling. That’s an effective word substitution that is helpful and not off putting. Here are a few rules for using big or non-common words:
1. Always consider your audience. What is their level of education, sophistication and self-confidence? Are they prone to boredom? Do they need to be intellectually stimulated to be engaged with you?
2. Make big words fight for their life. When you edit or before you speak, always require a case for a new word’s use. Is it more specific than the commonly used word? Is it more helpful in illustrating your point?
3. Define non-common words, in a sentence if possible. If it’s a big time smart pants word, acknowledge that it’s one of those scientist or university words, but you use it in a attempt to illustrate the point.
Always keep in mind that people are impressed by ideas, not words. If you are a big thinker, it shines through regardless of your vocabulary. When you start to use big words as a substitute for creative thinking … you are being self-pernicious … if you know what I mean.