Word Show-Offs

I was reading a review of a book recently (about vegetarians) in which the reviewer called Britain, “the land of the rosbifs.”

As the French are called “Frogs,” or the Germans, “Krauts,” the English are called rosbifs (roast beefs) by the French.

I don’t remember why I know this, but it occurred to me that most Americans reading the review must not know it at all. It’s not in any American or British dictionary that I checked.

To be fair, the review was in a British journal, and maybe the British all know the term. So I can’t blame the writer for using a word that few people would know, or even be able to look up.

But it reminded me of a book I recently read which quoted whole sentences in French or Latin without translating them. Which reminded me of lots of books that have done the same or similar things.

Why do they do that? Who are they showing off for?

I’m all for using the precise word over the less precise one, even if it means that a reader might have to visit the dictionary. But if your goal is to show us that you understand French, then you should put that information in a memoir about your days in France. Which I won’t read, because I don’t care.

It doesn’t help your reader understand the gist of your article or book when the words you use are purposely obscure. Do you want them to understand you, or to think that you’re really really smart?

Now that I’m on the subject, choosing the precise word doesn’t just mean the big one, or the obscure one. There’s no need to say, “utilize” rather than “use.” One isn’t more precise than the other. It’s just in fewer people’s vocabulary.

This means that it’s less likely to be understood while not adding one bit of meaning. That’s a bad idea. (Of course, there’s room to wiggle if you’ve already used “use” and want to mix up the language a little. If I write about a person’s vocabulary again in this post, maybe I’ll call it a lexicon.)

A little more. Sometimes even the sole precise word should be avoided. There’s no easy single word that means, “to throw out the window.” But unless you’re trying to be humorously formal, I’d stay away from “defenestrate,” unless there’s a character limit, or you have to rhyme with re-penetrate. And how often does that happen?

I personally love the word callipygian (or callipygous), which I squeeze into every conversation I possibly can. But that’s because, yes, I am showing off. (Anyway, the world seems a better place for having callipygian in it.)

To wrap up: squeezing something callipygous is good, defenestration has its time and place, but foreign phrases should be translated or left out.

Do you disagree? Well, you know what they say: “Potes meos suaviari clunes.”

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