When to be Sesquipedalian

As communication professionals, most of us subscribe to the notion that in speech or writing clarity comes first. The most elegant turn of phrase is wasted on someone who doesn’t comprehend it. As a result, we pare down the complexity of our sentences and the intricacies of our vocabulary. Those of us in the business of teaching journalism, advertising, or public relations regularly admonish students to “keep it simple.”

Having said that, we can’t help but admire great writing even if it sends us scurrying to the dictionary. For example, here’s a gem from syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer:

We must now brace ourselves for disquisitions* on peer pressure, adolescent anomie* and rage.

            (*Hold off on your dictionary run…I’ll get to them.)

And another from Mattathias Schwartz, writing in The New York Times:

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic* game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”?

So, what’s the difference between someone employs challenging but powerful words and someone who is merely sesquipedalian? Well, “sesquipedalian” means “characterized by long words” and in my mind it’s a good example of a complex word not to use. It’s just as easy to say “someone who just uses a lot of long words,” and when I hear or read “sesquipedalian” I can’t help but think the user is simply trying to show off.

Not so with “disquisition,” “anomie,” and “eristic.” They are powerful words with unique, specific, and impactful meanings that communicate a point with precision elegance. Here’s how I define them; I know there are other meanings but what I’ve used here are what I believe are the most common and useful:

Anomie (ANN-uh-mee)

What it Means: Unrest or instability brought on by a breakdown of ethics, standards, and values.

How to Use It: “The anomie and anger of the German people after World War I gave rise to the fascist power-grab.”

About the Word: “Anomie” comes from a Greek word meaning “lawlessness,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean insurrection.   It’s an expressive and precise word because it conveys the idea of festering alienation that could gradually lead to a social breakdown; you can also use it to apply to uncertainty, purposeless, or aimlessness stemming from a lack of ideals.


Disquisition (dis-qui-ZISH-uhn)

What it Means: An elaborate and highly detailed analysis of a subject.

How to Use It: “The senator responded to the question of how much money would be spent with a half-hour disquisition on the budgetary process.”

About the Word: “Dis” is Latin for “apart” (as in “disassemble) and “quaerere” means “seek,” so the word evolved from the idea of seeking and analyzing all the separate parts of an issue. (Interestingly, “analysis” comes from Greek words meaning to break into separate parts.) Sometimes, “disquisition” is used in a negative way to imply a needlessly elaborate explanation. Thus, you can employ it to express your exasperation with someone (“perhaps this isn’t the best time for a disquisition of your political views”) without being openly dismissive.


Eristic (err-ISS-tic)

What it Means: Intended to cause controversy, usually just for the sake of causing controversy. It can also be used as a noun to refer to someone who displays these tendencies.

How to Use It: “The talk-show host discussed very little of the real substance of the issue, preferring to launch eristic attacks on some of the wording in the candidate’s recent speech.”

About the Word: Eris was the beautiful but disagreeable Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and contention; her parents owned a restaurant near me and I briefly dated her in my youth. Her namesake word often implies not only creating disputes, but also invoking illogical or irrelevant arguments in the process.   As a result, using “eristic” subtly impugns both the motives and substance of someone’s remarks. (As a side-note, you may remember that Romans appropriated Greek gods into their belief system but changed their names. Eris became the Roman goddess Discordia, the root of our present-day word “discord.”)


What’s your favorite power word? Let me know: My next book project is titled An Arsenal for the Articulate: 500 Explosively Eloquent Power Words that You’ll Actually Use and Remember. I’d love to have you do my work for me. I’ll follow up with some reader-contributed words in a forthcoming column.


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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