Loading icon

The Secret Life of Language: The Pedantry Diagram

Arts & Culture | March 9, 2015

From the day I met him, I knew he liked fancy language. That’s hardly an unusual trait in the Tufts community; on my way to class this morning, I overheard obfuscate, copuis, and heteronormativity. And I’m guilty of this behavior, too: using especially long or complex words is as satisfying and delicious as the crunch of a carrot between my teeth. Insular. Superfluidity. I love them.

And this boy, a coworker of mine, also loved using long or complicated words. His favorite was perpetuate. On one of the first nights we were spending time together, he used the word ameliorate, which led us to create the (ironically titled) Pedantry Diagram.

Like most simple Venn diagrams, the Pedantry Diagram is made up of two circles with a small amount of crossover. One circle contains pretentious words, and the other contains “good” (satisfying and effective) words. Where the words are placed depends on whether there is a simpler word that could have been used, the way the speaker delivers the word, and the context in which the word is used.

Let’s take expedite as an example. It’s not a lengthy word, but it is somewhat obscure. It means to make something go faster. It has a number of synonyms: hasten, shorten, accelerate, and hurry among them. If, for example, I were to say I was “expediting a shower” by skipping conditioner, expedite would land in the ‘pretentious’ circle, because the meaning of the sentence could have been expressed more clearly by using one of the simpler synonyms. If, however, I was talking about expediting the process of housing applications in a paper for a class on poverty law, that would go under ‘satisfying’ words, because it’s a phrase that’s frequently used in that particular context.

Clearly, this is far from a perfect system, but the process of classification is much more important than the final decision. The reason such a diagram is necessary, other than the amusement of trying to definitively categorize words, is perhaps most easily explained with an example.

Once, back in eighth grade, I knew a boy who always used pretentious language, and eventually I confronted him about it.

“Nobody can understand you when you talk like that,” I said to him as we were walking from music to English. “Why would you use a word if nobody knows what it means? Then aren’t you just talking to hear your own voice?”

He turned around and gave me a pitying smile. “Tess,” he said, “you don’t really think vociferous is a ‘big word’—or do you?”

And with that, he turned around and headed into his class.

The point of this story is not only that this boy was completely obnoxious, but also that he twisted the purpose of language; instead of using words to communicate, he used them as some sort of airbrushing tool, painting himself as intelligent and distinguished to calm his own insecurities. He was someone who prizes the appearance of intelligence over the actual acquisition of wisdom or connection with other people. And, as a result, he warped language to be a part of his narcissistic self-presentation.

The Pedantry Diagram, then, is more than a running joke. It’s also a self-check mechanism. Did I use the word myriad because I just used a lot in the last paragraph, or did I do it because I wanted to prove that I knew myriad isn’t followed by the word of? Am I writing a senior thesis or an article for the Observer? Most of all, I want to be sure to ask myself: am I choosing longer and more complex words because they perfectly express what I want to say, in a way that a shorter one does not, or because I think I won’t sound smart enough otherwise?

By trying to classify whether our words are satisfying, pretentious, or both, we’re forced to check in with ourselves about the reasons behind our (often unconscious) language choices. We have an opportunity to make sure that our egos aren’t in the driver’s seat. And this applies, even more broadly, to the expensive and prestigious degree that we are here to receive— hopefully, we’re using it to build the first robot that can purify drinking water in less than a second. We’re using it to fight disease, combat racism, create music, and write environmental policy. We’re not here to take up space until we can hang a piece of paper in an office that says Universitatis Tuftensis. And our words, if chosen for the right reasons, can reflect our purpose.

Image: Wikimedia Commons (via Creative Commons).