Over the weekend, Martin Longman asked a surprisingly deep question, “What’s your favorite word that you would never use in ordinary conversation?” A couple of people answered with expletives. Most answered with extremely obscure or specialized words like “depauperate.” But a few got at what I think is the heart of question with well known but not base vocabulary words like “scurrilous.” The word that immediately came to my mind was “pulchritude.” It’s a doubly hexed word, because the adjective — pulchritudinous — is totally unwieldy. But the point, at least to me, is that the vocabulary I use depends upon who I am talking to. And I’m not very comfortable with that.
It is never my intention to use words that set me apart from other people. What’s more, I hope I never use language to show off my erudition — especially given that I am not all that well read compared to people I admire. Regardless, I’d like to think that I am confident enough about who I am that I don’t have to pretend to be more than I am. At the same time, there is a balancing act here. When communicating with others, you want to relate as equals. But you also want to be authentic, and sometimes I feel like a jerk when I make an awkward substitution.
There is a lot of judgement going on in doing this kind of thing. And that’s something that really bothers me. At the same time, I don’t think I look down on people with more limited vocabularies. For most of my life, I was the guy who was asking, “What does that mean?” And I’ll still ask that. I don’t feel that I have anything to prove; I’m just happy to learn a new word. But am I not depriving people around me of the same joy?
I don’t think that I am. My experience is that most people do not look forward to the opportunity to learn new words or whatever other knowledge clogs my brain. And if they do, they will let me know. You see, I don’t think I change my spoken vocabulary based upon my estimation of the listeners vocabulary. Rather, I change it based upon my assessment of their interest in such matters. I use whatever words come to my mind when I am talking to my close friends. For one thing, they already know that I’m a pretentious git, and they are too in their own ways (although they may not cop to this). And I know they will ask me if I use an odd work.
Any time that I’m interacting with someone I don’t know really well, I’m putting on a show for them. I’m trying to make the whole thing go smoothly. You don’t use nuance after dialing 9-1-1. And most of my personal interactions strike me as akin to a kind of emergency situation. Like a dysfunctional family during Christmas, I am just trying to get through this thing. With my friends, I can more be myself.
But I absolutely cannot imagine a time I would use “pulchritude” anywhere except as a joke. The reason is that the word “beauty” works as a perfect substitute. There are words that say more about the speaker than what is being said. “Pulchritude” is one of my favorites. And since I don’t ever want to use the language for that ignoble purpose, I don’t use the word even with friends.