Big Words, Big Thoughts (Update)

It can be hard to express deep thoughts. It’s harder still to have them, but that’s a different issue. A lot of people conflate the two by using strings of jargon, big words, to create the appearance of big thoughts when, perhaps unbeknownst to them, they aren’t actually saying anything. Why? Apparently, it makes them look sexy.

Sapiosexual, according to the Collins Dictionary online is “one who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature” and the “behaviour of becoming attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use”.

For the sake of staying on topic, just ignore the placement of the period outside the quotation marks.

If a man uses a word I’ve never heard before, my attraction radar surges to Defcon 1. Likewise if he uses somewhat poetic, non-standard language, my brain enters orgasmatron mode. Long complicated words, beautiful poetry, technical phrases that I don’t understand are all tantamount to talking dirty to me. In other words, I like big words and I cannot lie.

For the lawyer or law student inclined to use big words, this is a hard position to resist. After all, how many times has an attractive woman gushed over your polysyllabic utterances? Finally, someone who appreciates the intellectual tiger within, right?

Not so fast.

My thinking: Using unfamiliar words, at least in adults — or technical phrases that your listeners don’t understand — is probably something of a proxy for intelligence, but on balance a pretty poor one, compared to the alternative proxies. And while somewhat poetic, nonstandard language can indeed be interesting and attractive in some contexts, it’s counterproductive in most. For most practical, nonerotic uses, I prefer the advice of Winston Churchill, whose own sapio-credentials are pretty good:

Short words are best, and the old words, when short, are the best of all.

Eugene Volokh, perhaps as a product of a life wasted in academia, is unduly generous when he calls big words “something of a proxy for intelligence.” It’s not that smart people don’t know big words, or that they can’t, don’t, shouldn’t use big words per se. It’s that any idiot with google can use big words, or even more impressive to the pseudo-sapio, strings of them, to create the impression of impressiveness. Read the comments here to get a taste of the most mind-numbingly meaningless words imaginable.

For lawyers, as well as anyone whose purpose is to communicate and persuade, this is a terrible idea. You’re not there to get a judge hot and bothered, but to explain your position to the judge in the most effective possible way. You want to convince the court that your position is the correct one, the better one, not the one with the biggest, sexiest words. There has never been a judicial opinion that states, “while the defendant’s argument is frivolous, it was presented with such sexy big words that the court will hold for him nonetheless.”

But beyond lawyers, or any other profession or occupation that relies on its own internal language as a shorthand for communication (despite those who tell us that we should ignore words that have become standards in favor of simple language), the question remains whether big words convey big ideas or mask them.

One of the most difficult things to do is express a complex, nuanced thought in words that clearly communicate it to others.  Or to put it more simply, big ideas explained in small words. The person who can accomplish this is as intellectually sexy as they come.

The ability to do this, to communicate deep ideas clearly and concisely, should be the goal of every person who fancies himself a writer or thinker. It’s something I struggle with every time I tap out some crap here, disappointed in my inability to do better. When I read comments reflecting no grasp of what I tried to say, I am reminded of my failure to communicate effectively. I may be many things, but intellectually sexy I am not.

Then again, when I read law review articles, or other scholarly works, I feel better. After all, misery loves company, to borrow a trite platitude, and comparatively, my writing tends to be a shit ton more comprehensible than the crap academics spew in their effort to gain tenure.

What about judicial opinions? That’s a different animal. While some judges write with clarity, most engage in the formulaic use of empty rhetoric, citing the vagaries of precedent as if they actually support the current holding. Of course, the same empty rhetoric can usually be used to support any holding, because that’s what vagaries do.

And then there is a different problem in judicial opinions, in that judges are often constrained to find words, unwieldy tools, to express their conclusions when they really can’t explain themselves in anything remotely resembling a clear, meaningful way.

Consider that no one (don’t try this at home or in my comments) has proven capable of explaining what is meant by “beyond a reasonable doubt” in language comprehensible to a jury. Sure, we have approved jury instructions, but they’re worthless. It’s not that everyone doesn’t know it, but that we can’t come up with a better way. Maybe it’s because we’ve never really understood what it means, which tends to be a big stumbling block to clarity of expression.

So, judges will often conceal their lack of a rational basis for their ruling behind string cites and jargon, masking the absence of a comprehensible holding behind sexy words. Even so, no judge has ever told me that they have to fend off sapiosexuals who want to rip off their robes in fits of passion.

As for me, forget big words and try for big ideas. Use words that express ideas as clearly as possible. If you’re really lucky, you will have one big idea in a lifetime. I’m still hopeful and I don’t want to blow it by obscuring a deep thought behind some flashy big word, because I may never get a second chance.

Update: This just in from @NewRealPeerReview, “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins”:

What’s that? Did somebody have an orgasm?

30 thoughts on “Big Words, Big Thoughts (Update)

  1. Billy Bob

    Some people like big words. We like big breasts and big butts. How do you like them apples?

    Seriously now, our one Big Idea, we came up with a few years ago, was “Our Broken Jury System.”
    Yes, we wrote it as an op-ed piece. Yes, we shopped it around. Yes, it remains unpublished. Now we
    don’t know where it is? It might be in our old Apple PC which we have stashed somewhere for posterity. The printed version is lost in the shuffle.

    Big words are like big turds: You step carefully around them. They stink if you step on them. Expealidocious to you, sir!

  2. mb

    “If a man uses a word I’ve never heard before, my attraction radar surges to Defcon 1”

    Well that’s just frubjifunctixulous.

      1. Dragoness Eclectic

        And some people use large words for the same reason an advertiser uses figures–to obfuscate and mislead. “Figures don’t lie, but liars sure can figure!”

  3. John Barleycorn

    There you go again pulling out your hair to pull up the robe….

    If only you lawyers didn’t spend so much time trying to craft your arguments to capture the latest fashion $1500.00 an hour would go a lot farther than it does.

    Stop kidding yourselves already. It’s always* boxers or control briefs, why pretend?

    *Except for Ginsburg. She oscillates between Tanga, Boy Shorts, or a G-string and on any given day she can be sporting a pair of hipsters with lace or just kicking back in a cotton thong. And NO she doesn’t coordinate with her lace collar selection so why even try?

      1. John Barleycorn


        I put this kid on the payroll when he was two years old. In exactly 23 years from now* he will be amongst the fifth generation of thousands of agents I have sucessfuly placed as clerks throughout the federal judiciary. When he doesn’t have his crayons out he is already humiliating his parents with such purposefully meaningless four and five syllable word salad as to nearly make the wonky vocabulary he tailors the bookends of his “reasoning” with unnecessary.

        By the time he hits middle school he will have vice principles quaking in their loafers and flats while they dial the ivy towers on his behalf.

        Ruth used to be a control brief gal but trust me when I tell you she listens to everything her clerks tell her.

        When in became apparent it needed to be done to vent certain factions “frustrations”, how hard do you think it was to turn her into a “rock star” with the milienals overnight?

        *Mark my words Ruth will still be there. Our host doesn’t allow opera links in his back pages so in return, I withhold sharing the secrets of my R&D lab. Otherwise I would post up the work we are doing on Ruth’s future battery pack placement.

        Laugh all you want but don’t act surprised when we are forced to activate the Chief Justice’s inner Ken Doll chips later next year.

        BTW, since you were wondering, John sports blue cotton boxers during the week but breaks out the satin boxers with paisley prints on the weekends once in awhile.

  4. Lex

    What woman doesn’t want her man to be a cunning linguist?

    Also: Onomatomania. Smultronställe. Lemniscate. Millihelen. Cromulent. Consider yourselves aroused.

  5. DaveL

    I remember reading Einstein’s paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, where he lays out the Theory of Special Relativity, and being struck by how accessible it was. This is a paper where he basically tears down longstanding and widely accepted ideas about time and space, and remakes them from first principles, yet the wording is remarkably simple. Sure, it takes an understanding of undergraduate-level math to follow the equations, but quite a lot of it isn’t equations at all, but rather disciplined, step-by-step reasoning using the simplest terms possible.

    Contrast that with the typical NYT Editorial these days, which abounds with flowery and intricate prose, but leaves the reader guessing as to its meaning.

  6. Allen

    When you’re very good at what you do it all seems rather obvious, and should be readily understood by others. Perhaps your memory of the effort needed to arrive at your state of expertise is not as reliable as you think.

  7. James

    I know links are prohibited, but xkcd explains the “Up-goer five” that put man on the moon using only the most-common ten hundred words.
    The most complex concepts, explained simply, are within everyman’s grasp.

  8. Gregg

    Wait. Time out. Can we talk about the real question here: what were you even doing on a website titled “Thoughts by the Renegade Glitter Fairy”?

  9. Jim Tyre

    Even so, no judge has ever told me that they have to fend off sapiosexuals who want to rip off their robes in fits of passion.

    Have you ever asked Bruce Selya of the First US Circuit Court of Appeals? Most everyone needs a dictionary handy when reading his opinions.

    1. SHG Post author

      They’re probably going to make a TV show about your comments. They’re probably signing Arnold Schwarzenegger to play you at this very moment.

  10. TheHaywardFault

    “When I read comments reflecting no grasp of what I tried to say, I am reminded of my failure to communicate effectively.”

    You give us (me?) too much credit.

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