Pompous Word Choice

...writing with hot air

This is a work in progress: lots of writing, formatting, revising, proofing left to do! — David McMurrey

West wind

One of the great techniques for obfuscating our writing is to use words like "obfuscate." This chapter introduces you to lots of such words. When these words are used unnecessarily, they cause comprehension problems for readers and often seem pompous. We think, "What a pompous wind-bag this writer is!"

Scholars estimate that there are over a million words in the English language and that an average educated person knows about 30,000 of those words. Why so few? Plenty of those million words are highly specialized. Others are almost within our reach if we'd just take a moment and look them up. Strangely, some of the big words we do not know have simple synonyms that we all know.

You're probably aware of those vocabulary-builder books that you can buy in bookstores. The crass sensationalist ones proclaim that the more words you know, the more successful you will be. They often show charts of higher salaries linked to larger vocabularies. These hard-sell tactics want you to conclude that knowing a bunch of big words will somehow magically gain you big promotions and big incomes. But, as one of the more honest vocabulary-builder books admits, an aptitude with words is probably linked to some other realm of intelligence that makes success possible.

Spotting Pompous Word Choice

Five-dollar words:
Big words with lots of syllables (which sometimes have short, simple synonyms. (Thanks to Capital Community College Foundation's Guide to Grammar and Writing.)

Listed below is a plethora of big words (including "plethora") and their simple, humble counterparts. However, don't automatically assume that the big words must never be used. There may be nuances of different meaning or connotation that distinguish them. The creators of the vocabulary-building page at Capital Community College make a distinction between "five-dollar" words and "fifty-cent" words. (See this resource and others at the end of this chapter.) We'll use that distinction here.

Five-dollar words Fifty-cent words Five-dollar words Fifty-cent words
aggrandizement enlargement, extension amalgamation combination
amelioration improvement animadversions severe criticism
bifurcate split celerity speed
commencement start delineation outline
disclose reveal disputatious argumentative
dissemination spread effectuate make happen
efficacious effective, useful elucidate explain, clarity
emendations changes equitable fair
excoriate denouce expectorate spit
expediency effectiveness, speed expeditious effective
facilitation ease facticity factualness
finalize finish forbearance mercy, tolerance
foreseeable possible, imaginable hebdomary weekly
impediment obstacle implementation use
inchoate early incommodious uncomfortable
infelicity unhappiness, discontent initialization start
interrment burial intervention coming in between
invidious causing resentment liquidation end, close-out sale
meliorative improving meretricious vulgar, insincere
modality way, style modification change
mollify soften multifarious diverse, varied
multivariate having variables nascent emerging, beginning
obfuscate hide, make unclear obsequious servile, overly compliant
optimum best panoply showy array
parameters variables peroration fornmal, ornate speech
perspicaciously carefully plenary complete, full
polemic argument potentiality possibility, capability
precondition requirement procurement acquidsition
prognosticate predict promulgate decree
propinquity nearness provenance origin
proximity nearness pursuant to according to
ramification development, consequence recondite obscure
redolent fragment, suggestive regeneration regrowth
relinquishment abandonment, surrender remunerative profitable
replication repetition requisition requirement, request
revocation annulment sedulous careful, diligent
sententious opinionated somnolent sleepy, sleeping, sleep-inducing
specificity detail superannuated old, obsolete
supercilious haughty, scornful superfluous irrelevent, shallow
tangential unrelated, loosely related temerity fear, timidity
tendentious not partial termination end
transformation change validate approve, check
viable workable, possible voluble wordy, talkative

So why do we use these big words? There must be a whole panoply of reasons—from the most invidious and meretricious to the most meritorious and trenchant. But let's not get tendentious about it.

Divi-divi tree, Aruba
Fifty-cent words:
Short, simple words (which sometimes have big, long synonyms with lots of syllables). (Thanks to Capital Community College Foundation's Guide to Grammar and Writing.)

Fixing Pompous Word Choice

Okay, get out your dictionary. You are about to occulate some preponderately loquacious lexicalities!

Big-word version: Committee members perspicaciously promulgated a panoply of meliorative emendations.

This one is loaded with it, isn't it? Take it easy on that dictionary.

Simple-word version: Committee members carefully produced a broad range of corrections and improvements.

Kansas, Dust in the Wind (1977)

promulgate is a government word meaning to "enact" or "decree." produced may not be precise here; however, committees don't promulgate—legislatures do.

Big-word version: The celerity with which these superannuated statutes were dispatched was quite efficacious.

This example demonstrates how some big words are simply not necessary—once you strip them down to their simple meaning.

Simple-word version: The speed with which these obsolete statutes were thrown out was quite effective.
These obsolete statutes were quickly [efficiently] disposed of.

The phrase was quite effective is obviously not necessary.

Big-word version: These tangential issues serve only to obfuscate the nascent oligarchism of this initiative.

oligarchism is a tough word to find a simple synonym for; it's one of those words that you have to replace with multiple words.

Simple-word version: These side issues serve only to hide the growing influence of the wealthy few that is apparent this initiative.

Big-word version: We applaud the committee for its sedulous investigation of the more recondite areas of this conundrum.

No, conundrum is not a naughty word.

Simple-word version: We applaud the committee for its painstaking investigation of the more obscure areas of this puzzle.

Big-word version: The recruitment committee found the candidate to be obsequious in his voluble efforts to acquire employment.

Sometimes, you can't replace the big words with simple ones on a word-for-word basis. You just have to throw most of the sentence away and start over!

Simple-word version: The recruitment committee found that the candidate was acting too sevile and compliant in his efforts to get the job.

Japanese wind god, Tokyo National Museum

obsequious is a mighty fine word too . . .

Big-word version: The more sententious members of the committee prognosticated that the tendentious aspects of the bill would excoriated by the plenary session.

plenary session is vague as to who will be taking part in that session. Usually, it refers to a whole legislative body—all it members—or all those attending a conference.

Simple-word version: The more argumentative members of the committee predicted that the controversial aspects of the bill would denounced by the full senate.

For plenary session, we had to make something up! It's not unusual for big words to hide a nothingness of idea.

Big-word version: The somnolent characteristics of your peroration mollified the antagonistic predilections of many in attendance.

Now there's a strategy for you—put 'em to sleep!

Simple-word version: Your boring speech softened the opposition of many in attendance.

Big-word version: In its recent hebdomary meeting, the committee relinquished its control over the increasingly inchoate project.

What a great word hebdomary! Try it on your friends.

Simple-word version: In its recent weekly meeting, the committee gave up its control over the increasingly shapeless project.

Your dictionary will say that inchoate refers to something in its early, emerging stages. However, it also refers to something that is shapeless, ill-defined, amorphous (another nice big five-dollar word).

Big-word version: The propinquity of the requisite fiduciary requirements is quite incommodious, to say the least.

The big words here are redundant—they're hiding something!

Simple-word version: The coming financial requirements are inconvenient, to say the least.

Wind turbines

What seems to be going on here—hidden (obfuscated?) by these big words—is that some financial requirements will take effect in the near future and that's making folks uncomfortable.

Big-word version: His supercilious animadversions struck his supervisor as meretricious at best.

His supervisor could have used these very words to the animadversionist's face, and the latter would not have known a thing.

Simple-word version: His arrogant criticisms struck his supervisor as insincere at best.

meretricious is an interesting word. At first you think—ah, like meritorious. But, no, that e instead of an i makes all the difference!

Big-word version: The temerity with which the executive enacted multifarious measures aimed at mollifying employee sentiments and quelling invidious employee rebellion was redolent of cyncism.

Simple-word version: The audacity with which the executive enacted diverse measures aimed at softening employee sentiments and quelling growing employee resentment and rebellion was cynical.

In the original sentence invidious is misused. The word means "causing resentment."

Have you worn your dictionary out?

Notus, god of the south wind and bringer of the storms in Greek mythology (Palace under the Four Winds, Warsaw)

Fun with Pompous Word Choice

Here's where you can practice big words in safety. No one will laugh at you, think you are a pompous blowhard, or fire you. Rework the following sentences so that five-dollar words are used instead of fifty-cent words. Cover up the revisions, do your own revisions, and see how they compare.

Simple-word version: The beginnings of the English language can be traced to the invasions around the fifth century AD of Germanic-speaking peoples from northwest Germany (Saxons and Angles) and Jutland (Jutes) into what is now known as Eastern England.

Big-word version: Early intimations of the English language can be ascertained in the incursions around the fifth century AD of Germanic-speaking peoples from northwest Germany (Saxons and Angles) and Jutland (Jutes) into what in current parlance is now known as Eastern England.

Simple-word version: It is a matter of debate whether the Old English language spread by displacement of the original population, or by the native Celts' gradual adoption of the language and culture of a new prepotent ruling class, or by a coalescence of both of these processes.

Big-word version: It is a matter of contentious debate whether the Old English language was disseminated by displacement of the original population, or by the native Celts' gradual acquisition of the language and culture of a new ruling class, or a combination of both of these processes.

Simple-word version: Whatever their origin, these Germanic dialects eventually merged to a degree and formed what is today called Old English.

Big-word version: Whatever their provenance, these Germanic dialects eventually amalgamated to a degree and formulated what is contemporaneously denominated as Old English.

Simple-word version: The Norman conquest of England in 1066 greatly influenced the evolution of the language.

Big-word version: The Norman conquest of England in 1066 had great efficaciousness upon the transmogrification of the vernacular.

Simple-word version: For about 300 years after this, the Normans used Anglo-Norman, which was close to Old French, as the language of the court, law and administration.

Big-word version: For an approximation of 300 years subsequent to the invasion, the Normans used Anglo-Norman, which was in lexical proximity to Old French, as the parlance of the court, law and administration.

Simple-word version: By the latter part of the fourteenth century, when English had replaced French as the language of law and government, Anglo-Norman borrowings had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use.

Big-word version: By the posterior portion of the fourteenth century, when English had superseded French as the language of law and government, Anglo-Norman borrowings had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use.

If you are confident you can actually sustitute fifty-dollar words for fifty-cent words, try your hand at this exercise (get your dictionary and thesaurus!):

Rhett and Scarlett


Links to these exercises are provided at the end of the preceding sections where they are relevant. But here they all are in case you read the text straight through:

Additional Resources

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