Ameliorate the Verbiage

by Virginia Parker Staat

“I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Ameliorate. My young friend tells me it is his favorite word. To save you from spending time thumbing through the dictionary, it simply means to reform something bad to better. 

I have been working with my friend on his new website and have been trying to dissuade him from using ameliorate. His most recent attempts to cling to his favorite word, including banging his head against the desk, have caused us both to laugh.

Ameliorate is not a bad word. It is what Ernest Hemmingway called a ten-dollar word. His exact quote targeted rival William Faulkner, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Are you a sesquipedalian (one who uses long words)?  I certainly fall into the category. I love big words, particularly when I am able to say one word rather than three. Writing big words, however, is another subject matter. In writing, dangerous pitfalls lurk around big words. Overwriting can often occur, making our sentences cumbersome and tangled. Our writing can also easily become loftier and more dramatic than necessary. C.S. Lewis said, “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

Using big words in our writing can make us sound pretentious… or uppity, as my grandmother would say. Big words can make us sound artificial and insincere. Surprisingly, a recent Princeton study even suggests that using highfalutin words actually makes us look less intelligent (Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, 2006).

George Eliot reminds us, “The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.” Please be assured, the simplicity Eliot is talking about does not mean “dumbing down” our work. As an example, some have told me they want to write for children because they believe it is easier than writing for adults. I find this line of thinking appalling. I would hope that we never write something because it is easy. We write because we want to communicate something important… whether our reader is a child or an adult. (And trust me, relaying a complex subject matter to someone with a reading vocabulary of 500 words or less can be substantially challenging!) Charles Mingus said, “making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

As writers, communication is our goal. The question we must always ask ourselves when choosing our words is who is our audience? We need to use words that we understand and, more importantly, words that our readers will understand. We must ask ourselves why we choose to use the words we use, particularly the big words. What will our readers gain from the word? Will using a ten-dollar word help the flow or clarity or readability of our work?

Perhaps Will Rogers said it best in his down-to-earth, vernacular way, “The minute you put in a word that everybody don’t know, you have just muddled up that many readers. Running onto a word you can’t read or understand is just like a detour in the road. You cuss it, and about a half dozen of ‘em and you will take a different road next time. I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know ‘em the minute you see ‘em.”