Obscure Words are Obscure for a Reason


Bane of undergraduate professors, godsend to honest writers, stumbling block of fools. Many have dared, many have tried, many have stamped themselves inadvertently with the ‘idiot tag’. Ye who seek to enter into its power, beware the seduction of the dark side!


“You’re so smart, what big words you use!” is a sentiment that no intelligent, well educated human being has ever expressed sincerely.

The aptness of the words is the thing. Using words to create clarity is the indicator of smarts. And obscure words are obscure for a reason.

Let me elaborate.

The thesaurus is an extremely useful tool for writers when it is used correctly. Unfortunately, it is used incorrectly by most writers who use it.

A very good English professor whose class I once attended told us never, under any circumstance, to use the thesaurus. When I objected that there were legitimate circumstances in which it could be very useful, she admitted that I was right, but then cautioned us again to never use it. The tendency towards its abuse is just too high.

Let’s begin with ways the thesaurus should not be used, saving the ways it should be used for last and therefore maintaining an element of suspense.

1) Do not use the thesaurus to ornament your work with “bigger” or “fancier” words. This is a cardinal sin and immediately marks you as a fool. Do not.

Why? There are actually a whole host of reasons why you shouldn’t do this, but they mostly boil down to the fact that doing so makes your writing extremely irritating to read. People familiar with the words that you have obtained from the thesaurus will know that you have not used them aptly (because if they are words that you are unfamiliar with, it is extremely unlikely that you will use them well); people who aren’t familiar with the words will find your writing impenetrable; and anyone you have “fooled” with your fancy vocabulary, who is impressed enough to be worth having “fooled”, will look up some of the words you used in a dictionary and most likely conclude (once again) that you did not use them well.

It is extremely irritating, even infuriating, as a reader, to look up obscure vocabulary and discover that the writer has not used it correctly. This happens to me at least 50% of the time I come across a word in print that I am unfamiliar with.

What should a reader conclude about a writer who peppers their work with obscure vocabulary that is incorrectly used? I can only guess how other readers feel about it, but as for me I conclude that the writer is a moron and an intellectual poseur.

Why, as a writer, are you choosing to use an obscure word? Unless the answer is that “this is the best possible word for use in this particular written context” you have a more fundamental problem on your hands than vocabulary.

One thing I have read a lot over the past three or four years is my favorite magazine, The New Yorker. For those unfamiliar with it, The New Yorker employs many brilliant and notable writers, as well as many less brilliant but very pretentious ones, and is probably the most highly respected literary magazine in the English speaking world. Without question it is the most prestigious place for a writer of short fiction to be published. Yet, even in its illustrious pages, I often find that when a writer uses a word I am unfamiliar with, and I go and research that word (which I always do), it turns out that they have used the word incorrectly. This is extremely irritating to me as a reader and lowers my estimation of both the particular writer in question and the magazine itself.

But the salient point is that even the purple-blooded doyens of the New York literary establishment who write in The New Yorker are not immune to temptations of the dark side! Guard yourself.

2) Do not use the thesaurus to find alternatives to a word you are using over and over again. This is a lesser evil, but again comes down to the fact that if you needed to use the thesaurus to find them you are unlikely to use the words well. Instead, stop and think for a while about alternative words or expressions to use. If you were telling someone the story instead of writing it, what words would you use? If you can’t think of any alternative word, you can always make up your own alternative expression(s), which is the beauty of language! A ‘baseball’ doesn’t have to be called a ‘baseball’, it can also be called ‘that round leather thing’, or ‘that broken white-faced cow-skinned spherical shrunken head with big red stitches around it”. The important thing is that you use words that belong to you, that come from inside of you, because anything else will start to build falsity into your message.

Here’s another problem: if you use words that you are unfamiliar with, they are almost certainly not going to be the best words available, even if you use them well. The fact that you are unfamiliar with them is actually a big warning sign!

Why does a word become obscure? In most cases, it is because it has been supplanted by other, better words.

Take, for example, the word ‘callow’.

‘Callow’ is actually a simple word, it means immature. And that is why it has become an obscure word, because in the context of contemporary English the word ‘immature’ is a much better word for its purpose than the word ‘callow’. ‘Immature’ is a better word, because in the context of contemporary English it sounds like what it means, and ‘callow’ does not. The word ‘immature’ is rooted in the word ‘mature’, a common word; it’s very clear the kind of idea ‘immature’ is getting at. ‘Immature’ doesn’t conjure up a lot of ideas or associations other than what it actually means. ‘Callow’, on the other hand, while it doesn’t conjure anything specific to the mind (within the context of contemporary English usage), brings up loose associations of words that sound or look similar such as sallow, tallow, allow, fallow. The problem is that these words have little or no relation to the meaning of the word ‘callow’.

‘Callow’ is not a good word. It may have been a good word once, and it may still serve a particular purpose in a specific context (such as for the dialogue of a very pretentious fictional character), but it has fallen by the wayside because it has been supplanted by a word or words that are better.

It is almost always a bad thing when a word doesn’t sound like what it means. Such words generally get supplanted and discarded.

Now take as a contrast the similar words ‘sallow’ and ‘tallow’: these two words complement each other with overlapping ideas that mimic their overlapping sounds, and hence they are still current words (albeit with quite specific meanings, and therefore slightly obscure). ‘Sallow’ means a sickly pale or yellowish color, while ‘tallow’ (a kind of hard animal fat) is a sickly pale or yellowish color. In the context of contemporary English, these words still sound like what they mean.

The meaning versus the sound of words can be an extremely complicated equation, and is always to some degree irreducible, but it nevertheless affects native speakers intuitively, like color patterns or musical harmonies. [ It is also worth underlining here that what makes a word ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in contemporary English usage is not limited to whether or not it sounds like what it means. Not sounding like what they mean is a major reason why some words are more popular than others and why some previously common words have become obscure, but not by any means the only one. ]

The context of language is a moving target, so the perfect word today might be a terrible word 100 years from now. Take the word ‘Isis’ for a recent and extreme example. Isis was an important Egyptian goddess who also came to be worshiped throughout the Roman Empire. Most people ten years ago wouldn’t have been familiar with the specific meaning of the word Isis, but they probably would have had a vague sense that it referred to some ancient god or goddess, and that it was an elegant, refined sounding word. It was a good name, therefore, for a company, and indeed a major start-up company just a few years ago chose for itself the name ‘Isis’. Last year, at great expense, the company abruptly had to change its name. Why? Because the “Islamic State” arose up out of the world and was popularly known as ‘Isis”, quickly becoming the dominant mental association that most people had with that word. In just a couple of years, the sound and connotation of the word ‘Isis’, what it called to the forefront of people’s minds, completely changed. The context of the language changed, the target moved; a good word became (as far as its old purposes were concerned) a bad word. If you were writing a novel five years ago and named a character Isis, the impact of that name for readers at the time you wrote it would have been completely different than for readers today.

Here’s something else to consider:

I often find, when I read a piece of work that uses a word with which I am not familiar, and I look the word up to find out what it means, that it is a word I do not in fact want to know or remember. If it is a bad word, a word unsuited to contemporary English, a word that sounds like it means something that it does not mean, then it is counterproductive to me as a writer to have that word indelibly imprinted on my mind. I try to wash such words from my memory, just as the collective of native English speakers has washed them from its own.

Obscure words are obscure for a reason. They have gone out of fashion or been deprecated for a reason. Don’t use them unless you know exactly why you are doing so. Definitely don’t use them if you are not even familiar with them in the first place!

Now let’s not get carried away: Probably every writer in the history of the world has mixed up the meaning of some word or another, at some time or another, and used it incorrectly in something they published. It doesn’t mean the writer is an idiot; it happens. But good writers are always trying to minimize the occurrence of such mistakes. And the difference between misusing a word you pulled from your own mind and misusing a word you pulled from the thesaurus is usually apparent.

So when should a writer use the thesaurus? For what purpose is it helpful or appropriate?

There is one good reason for a writer to make regular use the thesaurus that I am aware of, and that is to quickly call back to mind words that the writer already has on the tip of his/her tongue. For this purpose the thesaurus is a perfect and extremely useful tool.

Some people are more absent minded than others and will have words more often stuck on the tip of their tongue than others. Writers tend to be more absent minded than most, because they tend to have a lot going on in their brains. Writers also often have large vocabularies, so they have a lot of words rattling around in the outer recesses of their memory that can sometimes be difficult to retrieve. And that is where the thesaurus comes in.

Suppose I need the word ‘threshold’, but it’s stuck on the tip of my tongue and I just can’t get it out. I can’t make the letters or sounds of the word I need coalesce in my mind. It’s a word I’m familiar with, I know it’s the word I want, I’ll know it when I see it, and I will eventually think of it regardless, but for the moment I cannot quite pull it out of my memory. Well, instead of spending several minutes (or more than several minutes) trying to completely recall the word, I can simply refer to a thesaurus using words like ‘entrance’ or ‘entranceway’ and quickly rediscover the specific similar word that I am looking for.

Once upon a time, I refused to use the thesaurus as a matter of principle. And sometimes I would spend hours with a word on the tip of my tongue, knowing the word was there, knowing it was the perfect word for my writing purpose, but struggling to manifest it completely. Eventually I would come up with the word I wanted, but what a colossal waste of time! The thesaurus is precisely the tool to alleviate struggles like this; in a matter of seconds, or sometimes minutes, you can use it to jog your memory and recover the word that you already knew you wanted to use.

That’s the only common case I am aware of when a writer should be using the thesaurus. There may be one or two others, and I can think of some very specific cases in which it would be an appropriate tool, but generally you should only be using it for the purpose of recalling words that you already know.

Usually when we try to sound really smart we inadvertently make ourselves sound stupid. Remember that ‘really smart’ doesn’t ever have anything to prove. Always beware the temptations of the dark side.

Oh, and also, much like the dictionary, reading the thesaurus can sometimes simply be amusing, or fun. Or illuminating, or educational. That’s ok, too. Have at it!