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更新时间:2014-4-14 13:58:55 来源:华尔街日报中文网 作者:佚名

Big Words Are Fading, But Many People Still Love Them

I love big words. It started when I was a kid and first heard 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.' ('Something to say when you don't know what to say,' according to the movie 'Mary Poppins.')

I quickly moved on to real words: 'Ebullient,' 'innocuous' and 'malodorous' were some of my favorites. If I came across a word I didn't know in a book, I looked it up. I made flashcards to help myself remember the ones I particularly liked. Now I'm worried that big words--the challenging, expressive and interesting ones--might start going away.

Big words can be tough on relationships. Messy versus neat, early bird versus night owl--add to this list language junkies versus those with a tweet-ready vocabulary. The problems that big words cause are overlooked. Can people who enjoy using big and obscure words, and those who are annoyed by them, get through to each other?

Technology is largely to blame for big words' fade out. We are being conditioned to communicate faster and in shorter bursts. There isn't room for big words in a text or a tweet or even a quickly dashed-off email. We're communicating across so many different channels that, by sheer necessity, our language is becoming abbreviated ('R u with me?').

Earlier this month, the College Board, which runs the SAT tests, said among other changes it will drop obscure vocabulary words. Instead of quizzing students on definitions of words such as 'prevaricator,' 'sagacious,' and 'ignominious,' the test will focus more on reading comprehension and understanding words whose meanings shift in context, like 'synthesis' and 'empirical.'

In grammar school, Jack Bonneman studied a Scripps-Howard spelling bee booklet every night because he liked to learn new words; he went on to become a spelling bee champ. One of his all-time favorite words, which he spelled correctly in fifth grade, is 'otorhinolaryngology,' the study and treatment of diseases of the ears, nose and throat.

But big words--the words that others perceive to be obscure or 'fancy'--have also caused him trouble. In college, he bought his girlfriend the hair-straightening iron she had been hinting about for Christmas and told her, 'I thought it was perfect for you, given your fastidious nature when it comes to your appearance.'

Mr. Bonneman says she threw the gift on the couch, snapped, 'Well, aren't you smart?' and stormed out of the room. Then she broke up with him.

'She claimed it had largely been due to my constant use of big words, which made her feel stupid,' says the 28-year-old, who is chief executive of a Miami digital-design agency.

Several years later, Mr. Bonneman says, he received some advice from a colleague before an interview for an IT job. 'Don't use any words that are more than three syllables long--you don't want the hiring manager to think you are smarter.'

Mr. Bonneman dismissed the advice and during the interview dropped 'esoteric,' 'penultimate,' 'non sequitur,' 'didactic and 'circumlocute' on the interviewer.

'Using 'vocabulary words' feels much more natural to me than trying to force the use of shorter words in their stead,' he says. He didn't get the job.

One reason word nerds aren't intimidated by sesquipedalian language is that they like discovering new words and looking them up.

'I think we should be glad there are people in the world who can teach us new things,' says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. 'If I hear a word I don't know--as long as it is not merely a silly business buzzword that obfuscates rather than illuminates--I am happy to have the opportunity to learn something that I didn't know before,' Ms. Jovin says.

When choosing your words, Ms. Jovin says it's important to consider your motivation. 'If you are using $50 words to show off, and you know people will not understand them, then that is unkind and annoying, and they have a reason to react negatively,' she says.

Be absolutely sure of the definition. 'Misuse of big words is a disaster,' she says. 'You are not only a phony but you are bad at being a phony,' she says.

Consider your audience. You can't be absolutely certain which words will be familiar to the person you are speaking with. But you can get close, Ms. Jovin says. As you are speaking, make adjustments based on who is listening. Your goal is to communicate well. You can't do that if the other person has no idea what you are saying.

Ramsey Bahrawy, a 59-year-old elder-law attorney in North Andover, Mass., says he learned to love big words from his mother, who taught him to look up any word he didn't know. Still, he now uses big words only when he is speaking with family members or friends he knows will understand them. Words that he saves for people he knows well include 'perfidiousness,' 'excogitate,' 'perspicacious' and 'remunerative.'

'Big words have an intimidation factor,' Mr. Bahrawy says. 'And to be effective, I need to communicate on a level everyone understands.'

When speaking with clients, jury members and even other attorneys, Mr. Bahrawy says he limits himself to a vocabulary appropriate for someone with a fifth-grade education. He stays away from 'vicissitudes' and instead refers to 'the changes that occur in your life.'

To determine what type of words to use, Mr. Bahrawy says he will 'throw a big word out there and engage a person's reaction. If the reaction is a blank stare, I will adjust what I have to say.'

'I want people to feel comfortable,' he says. 'I want them to feel like they want to be my friend and be around me.'

我喜欢大词。那是从我小时候第一次听到“supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”时开始的。(出自《欢乐满人间》(Mary Poppins):“不知道说什么好的时候就这样说”。)

很快我就转到了真正的大词:“ebullient”(热情奔放的)、“innocuous”(平淡无味的) 和 “malodorous”(难闻的)是我最爱的几个。如果看书的时候遇到不认识的词,我就会查字典。我会制作生词卡帮助自己记忆特别喜欢的单词。现在我担心那些大词——也就是有挑战性、富有表现力和妙趣横生的那些词——有消逝的趋势。


对于大词的消逝,科技的发达要负主要责任。如今我们习惯了更快和更短暂的沟通。在一条信息、一则微博或一封匆匆写好的电邮里,大词没有容身之地。我们沟通的渠道太多了,导致我们的语言不得不越来越简化(比如“R u with me?”)。

3月份,负责SAT考试的美国大学委员会(College Board)宣布将对考试内容进行多项修改,其中包括减少高难词汇。考试不会考查学生对“prevaricator”(推诿的人)、“sagacious”(有判断力的) 和“ignominious”(耻辱的)等词的定义,而是更注重阅读理解以及在不同上下文词义有所变化的词,比如“synthesis”(综合)和“empirical”(凭经验的)。

28岁的杰克·博纳曼(Jack Bonneman)是迈阿密一家数字设计公司的首席执行长。小时候在语法学校时,他每天晚上都要学习一本斯克里普斯-霍华德(Scripps-Howard)拼字比赛小册子,因为他喜欢学新词。后来他成了拼字比赛冠军。他最喜欢的一个词是“otorhinolaryngology”,他在五年级时就能正确地拼出来了。这个词的意思是耳鼻喉科学。

但大词——也就是其他人认为晦涩难懂或“花里胡哨”的词——也给他带来了麻烦。上大学时,他给女朋友买了她一直暗示想要的直发器作为 诞礼物并告诉她:“鉴于在外表方面你吹毛求疵的本性,我觉得它非常适合你。”




博纳曼并未理会同事的建议,在面试时对面试官抛出了“esoteric”(深奥的)、“penultimate”(倒数第二的)、 “non sequitur”(不合逻辑的推论)、“didactic”(学究式的)和“circumlocute”(迂回累赘地陈述)等大词。



纽约沟通技巧培训公司Syntaxis联合创始人艾伦·若温(Ellen Jovin)说:“世界上有人能教我们新东西,我觉得我们应该感到高兴。如果我听到一个不认识的单词,只要不是毫无启发意义的愚蠢的商业流行词,我都很高兴有机会学习以前不知道的东西。”




59岁的拉姆西·巴赫拉维(Ramsey Bahrawy)是马萨诸塞州北安多弗(North Andover)的一名老年法律师。他说他从母亲那里学到了对大词的热爱,母亲教导他不认识的词要查字典。不过他现在只在和家人或朋友说话时用大词,他知道他们都能懂这些词。他和熟人说话时常用的词包括“perfidiousness”(背信弃义的)、“excogitate”(图谋)、“perspicacious”(有洞察力的)和“remunerative”(有利可图的)。