I don’t know about your house, but in our house, there’s a premium placed on using just the right word for the right job. Given that my wife and I are both writers and editors, that’s to be expected. What’s not to be expected — or at least what continues to surprise and please me — is that our children have the same sensibilities.
The other day at lunch, my wife and I were talking with our son when he described his lack of enthusiasm about a chore by saying that it didn’t exactly make him feel like gamboling through the forest. Yes, that’s right. He’s a teenager and he actually used the word gambol in conversation.
I know your geek alarm is probably sounding right about now, but I promise you he’s not a geek, anymore than my daughter — a 12 year old who described one of her babysitting charges as obstreperous — is a geek. The truth is that they are both very likable, very normal, very cool kids. They are also very well-read. This, as you can imagine, has done more for their language skill than anything we could ever do.
Of course there are times when you use the right word, and it drops into a conversation like a polysyllabic bomb that sucks all the air out of everyone in the room, leaving them mumbling to one another asking “What did he say?” and “I’m gonna have to look that up.” This happened to me in a meeting one day when I described a common occurrence as quotidian. Of the four others in the room, only one — a staff member of mine — had any idea what I was talking about, and she simply smiled at me as if to say “Oh, that went well.”
In that case, the right word was, in fact, the wrong word. This has as much to do with audience analysis as anything else. There’s a fine balance between a word that expresses the notion you are trying to communicate perfectly to your audience, and a word that makes you audience say, as Samuel L. Jackson does in Pulp Fiction, “Check out the big brain on Brad.” This is something you want to avoid.
Still, though, it’s a judgment call, but I think it’s one we ought to be comfortable making. Why shouldn’t it be okay if someone has to look up a word? Why shouldn’t we all be doing our part to elevate the language? Why shouldn’t we take that extra moment to think, and to call up just the right word? Particularly when the right word — exactly the right word for your purpose and your audience — has such a powerful effect in both your writing and your speech.
I think that’s kinda, like, important.