It might surprise you to learn that most "big" (little-known) words aren't big. The least-known words (fylfot, gossypol, absquatulate, obloquy) are on average only one letter longer than common words known to most English speakers. Many five-syllable words (university, humiliation, electricity, vocabulary) are well known to most people who are fluent. "Incomprehensibilities" and "uncopyrightable" are long words, but not hard ones. But very few English speakers can define "fetial" on the fly.
Another oddity: writers don't tend to have big vocabularies. They're typically only on the middle to middling-high side. The reason is plain once you know it: if you use words your audience doesn't know, you have failed to communicate. This is especially true when the main word in any given sentence, the one that needs to do the most work, is little-known—which is a pet peeve of mine and something I try to avoid when I play with words. For instance, "The professionals are blessed and cursed with being hierophants of our cult." Hierophants—smarty-pants—huh? The sentence is meaningless unless you happen to know that "hierophant" is a word derived from Greek that means "a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy."
That's a sentence by Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker about an important show of sports photography at the Brooklyn [NY, USA] Museum called "Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present," curated by Gail Buckland.
The show begins with the earliest known sports photograph [the article begins]: a calotype, from 1843, by the pioneering Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, of a gent who holds a badminton racket across his smartly clad body in an oddly worrying manner, as if it were a weapon. We get that his pastime is glamorously serious and seriously glamorous. (Peter Schjeldahl)
It's the second review at this link; you'll have to scroll down past the first one.
Exceptionally high vocabularies are impediments to communication. Despite having a rather fat vocabulary myself (I test well...a little too well to be a writer, actually), I tripped over the following sentence by Schjeldahl: talking about Neil Leifer's famous photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, he says, "But it lacks neither that nor the dramatic irony of Liston's collapse: in effect, prostration to a demiurge of history on the turn." Prostration to a demiurge of history on the turn? I read that three times; sort of get it now, although let's just say I hope there's not going to be a test on that.
The New Yorker has a bit of a problem with this. In the same (July 25th) issue, Hua Hsu's article "Pale Fire: Is whiteness a privilege or a plight?" is finely written and subtly argued, but I suspect I know actual college graduates who would give up on its language before reaching the end of its two and a half pages. It begins, according to the standard New Yorker template, with a specific, concrete event firmly planted in place and time, and then (also typically) shifts to more abstract thoughts, the watery course marked by buoys of book citations and other marker events, help doled out to earnest swimmers who need something to hang on to now and then.
Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, considered his somewhat unschooled ignorance to be an asset: he was always getting after his writers to say things more clearly, under the premise that if he didn't get it, lots of his readers wouldn't get it either. He understood the peril of big words, in other words. Hua Hsu's graduate-level language might have slid past, but I'm pretty sure those two single sentences I cited of Schjeldahl's wouldn't have survived the Ross Test.
Here's another review of the "Who Shot Sports" show: "Treating Sports Photographers as the Artists They Are."
If you can't make the show, there's also a book, featuring nearly 300 outstanding or historically important photographs by 165 photographers. Author/curator Gail Buckland is former curator of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and former Olympus Visiting Professor of the History of Photography at Cooper Union in New York City. Here's the UK link and here it is at the Book Depository. Sports, as you've got to admit even if you don't like sports, is one of photography's great subjects.
And isn't it cool to know what the first sports photograph was? I didn't know that before today.
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