Beguiled by Big Words

by Margaret Chiavetta

As a writer, I sometimes feel pressured by my audience or peers to use big words, but I learned that this can be a trap. More often than not, the simple words are the most effective. The word beguiled means to lead by deception. I could have used a more familiar word like deceived or lured and delivered the same meaning. Meaning can easily get lost in an superfluity excess of complicated words, while the simple words can make meaning more clear.

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says that I shouldn’t be concerned with my vocabulary, and that improving it shouldn’t take any conscious effort. I read this right before I started my MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics and I felt a gargantuan huge amount of relief. My anxiety over my vocabulary was unnecessary. Now I am a more efficient writer because of this advice. I no longer waste time pondering thinking of bigger words to replace my simple ones.

As I accumulate my vocabulary through practiced reading, writing and listening, the bigger words come organically naturally. I have these wonderful moments when the meaning of a word will suddenly come to me out of nowhere. I remember when the word maladapted finally found its place in my vocabulary. Someone’s dog was off its leash in a park and it tried to come after me, but the owner grabbed him in time. I remember feeling angry that irresponsible people would let their maladaptive dogs off their leashes in public places. Why is maladaptive more appropriate than a familiar word like untrained? Dogs have a natural instinct to be territorial and protective of their human kin, but as domesticated animals they have to adapt to the social rules of human society. A dog doesn’t necessarily need to be trained in order to behave in public; many well-behaved dogs aren’t trained. The appropriate behaviors need to be learned from their owners in order to facilitate help with adaptation, otherwise the dogs become maladapted.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with artfully stringing together a variety of big words, but this is how big words can beguile us. They do have a place in our writing, but they shouldn’t be a concern that takes up time and energy. If we just keep doing what we do, the words will come and they will find a perpetual permanent home in our vocabularies.



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