Ever heard of a “ten dollar word?” That’s a multi-syllabic, lots-of-consonants-and-vowels, extra-alphabet-flaunting, does-the-same-job-as-a-much-shorter-word kind of word.
Why use a “ten dollar word” when a simpler one will do? Our old friend Roland, a master carpenter from Rockport, used to ask that question. It’s a good question.
As a writer, I usually aim for more accessible language. Okay, admittedly, I’m long-winded. Verbose. I use a lot of words, often too many. But I still try to choose words that make my meaning clear and relevant to as many people as possible.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of a “ten dollar word.” Certain professionals are very fond of the term “utilize.” Yet it means the same thing as “use.” Whenever I catch someone dropping the word “utilize” in the sentence, and I’m editing, I usually change it to “use.” Easier to read. Means the same thing.
Imagine filling paragraphs with fancy words instead of straightforward ones. Check out a legal contract of some kind, and betcha you’ll find plenty of similar examples. Utilize.
Yes, there’s a time and place for beautiful or precise language. For flowery or more specific terms. English, and many other languages, are richer because of their complexity, their subtlety, their nuances.
Plus I love words. I collect them the way some people collect stones or coins. I like to understand them, even if I don’t have a daily use for them. So I sympathize with the tendency to play with them and apply them.
Yet I also appreciate the power of direct, to-the-point speech.
Which brings me to my next example. I’m registering for classes at Harvard. And my new word for the day? Straight out of course descriptions at Harvard.
(Note: to be grammatically correct, foreign words are shown in italics. Hence the italics here. It’s not for emphasis, just clarity. Hmmm, if I applied the editorial guideline correctly.)
Back to praxis. Okay, maybe some of you professionals, such as attorneys and doctors out there, make common use of this word. I’m sure it has usefulness. Just as I’m sure my vocabulary will soon be peppered with Greek and Latin terms that didn’t seem relevant three days ago.
Praxis. What is this word? Well, I wanted to know, because I found it in several course descriptions, during pre-registration. But I couldn’t make sense of it.
Praxis. Maybe if I say it, or write it, enough times, it will sink in.
Praxis. Praxis. Praxis. Not yet.
So I’ve Googled it. That’s officially a verb, by the way. Googled. (Hah, yeah, I used “googled” in a sentence.)
And yes, this journal includes a confession from a soon-to-be graduate student about my current lack of academic rigor. I looked up the definition of “praxis” online. Praxis.
Below is an unauthorized description of its meaning, straight from Wikipedia. (In some realms of academia, at least, Wikipedia is considered a somewhat terrible — not authoritatively authenticated — source of information, since anyone can put up anything, and spread misinformation as well as information.) By the way, you can’t refer to Wikipedia in academic papers, for instance. And soon I’ll be at school, restricted to citing primary sources and doing my research through formal databases in the library. (Phew, thank goodness for places like EBSCO, which is a database publisher in my own hometown of Ipswich.)
Now, in this blog, I confess that I lazily clicked on praxis links provided by Google. Leading to Wikipedia, that reprehensible network of collaboratively-collected information (which I love, by the way, as a jumping-off point for research). Wikipedia says, “Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized. It may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practizing ideas …”
There’s more. Wikipedia continues, “Aristotle held that there were three basic activities of man: theoria, poiesis and praxis … corresponded to … three types of knowledge: theoretical, to which the end goal was truth; poietical, to which the end goal was production; and practical, to which the end goal was action.”
Well, okay. Praxis seems to be the implementation of ideas. Putting concepts into practice.
Got it. I think … I hope … Er.
Praxis. So, that’s one word in several course descriptions that I can now interpret. Just a few dozen more to go, and I may be able to make an educated decision about which classes to take.
Another confession: I’m exaggerating. Teasing. Most of the class titles are very engaging. Only a few are off-putting and so out-there that I can’t understand them. Many titles are short and straightforward.
Some are even attention-getting. They entice me. Even if you don’t know what these classes are about, you want to find out more. To be honest, in order to be somewhat risqué, I selected a small subset from among many mundane, workable academic class titles available at Harvard. So this is a misrepresentation, but it makes the point:
- The Shock of the New
- Prophecy, Ecstasy, and Dreams in Early Christian History
- Crusades, Plagues and Hospitals
- Body and Flesh
- The Body and its Moral Cultivation
- The Deep: Purity, Danger, and Metamorphosis
- Eye Contact, Ethics and Interbeing
- Ritualization, Play, and Transitional Phenomena
Some professors know how to make the study of religions sound appealing, even sexy, or at least alarming and different. And once you dig deeper, the content of the classes sounds challenging, but accessible.
Another confession: I’m not signed up for any of the classes above. The ones that excited me were … more provocative? More chaste? Or simply going in a different direction? Hmmm, I’ll never tell.
On the other hand, some of those Harvard professors want me to work for it. Their course titles are difficult to parse. Layered with slippery words. Hard to understand. And no, I won’t put up a list of the more inaccessible titles. Too scary. (Again, teasing here.)
Undaunted, I click on the course description, and try to interpret what the class might be teaching, by reading its context. But that’s not so easy, either. A few instructors write so circuitously, going in circles around the subject, that I only understand some of what’s being said. The main themes elude me. My brain gets tired, just trying to decipher what I might be studying, if I was persuaded to enroll, if only I could interpret the description.
For instance, try this word: complementarity. (This time, I italicized for dramatic emphasis, not for editorial clarity.)
It’s part of a class description that sounds tantalizing, if I could just translate the gist of the class description. I think the course covers sexual identity, maybe in the context of religious history and concepts of self, but I’m not entirely sure.
Back to Google, back to Wikipedia. (Naughty me.) Maybe this entry helps us. “The complementarity principle states that some objects have multiple properties that appear to be contradictory. Sometimes it is possible to switch back and forth between different views of an object to observe these properties, but in principle, it is impossible to view both at the same time, despite their simultaneous coexistence in reality.”
Okay, Wikipedia’s examples of complementarity are physics-based: electrons perceived as either wave or particle. But you get the idea. Complementarity, as applied to gender, might mean man/woman. Both? Neither? Transgender? Bisexual? Variations in gender identity or roles. Something along those lines.
Well, that’s two new words in one day, just from reading class overviews. I cannot figure out how to casually drop either “praxis” or “complementarity” into my daily conversations, but maybe I’ll find a way.
Imagine what a whole semester will do to my brain! Every sentence will be filled with “ten dollar words.”
To me as an incoming student, it seems that when a professor assembles a course description and title, she or he is attempting to market or appeal to students. Inviting me into the professor’s slice of the universe, to become engaged by very specific areas of passion and expertise.
And maybe some students are immersed in the same linguistic ocean as the professor, swimming in adjectives and nouns and verbs that aren’t typical of the everyday reality, but some of us are coming from a more “street smart” sort of background.
Of course, I’m going to Harvard to learn about and dive into ideas and thoughts and knowledge not available for free (yet) on the corner of Main and High. But on the other hand, I’d like the street signage, the course titles and descriptions, to get me there. Give me good directions, so I know what my destination is. Maybe even act like a neon sign and lure me in?
Will I eventually arrive at the intersection of “Praxis Lane” and “Complementarity Avenue”? Can’t tell yet.
(Aside: The subject of accessible, affordable education for more people is a whole different topic for another day. Don’t get me started. Ew, that reminds me, time to call the financial aid office again today.)
I’m looking forward to classes. To new ideas. To new languages, even. Part of my challenge will even be to minor in a different religion, in addition to becoming more knowledgeable about the scholarship and practices within my own faith tradition. All of this is very exciting!
Some of my favorite “ten dollar words” were a gift in high school. I remember the slogan that my American History teacher Mr. Davis, posted on his wall. It was ironic, as you’ll see.
Mr. Davis’s high school poster: Eschew Obfuscation.
If you’re a vocabulary geek like me, you may already be chuckling. If you don’t know those words, you can learn two more vocabulary terms today.
- Eschew is a verb that essentially means: avoid, forgo or prevent.
- Obfuscation is a noun or state of being: perplex, muddle, or confuse.
Basically, Mr. Davis’s poster uses “ten dollar words” to tell us to “prevent confusion.” Or to accomplish its alternative. “Seek clarity.”
Though I try not to remember too much about those years in Ohio, Mr. Davis and his poster stuck with me. A few of my soon-to-be professors might want to read that high school wisdom: eschew obfuscation. But then again, if they did, they might be teaching at Zanesville High School in Ohio instead of Harvard University in Massachusetts.
I’m putting that pair of “ten dollar words” in my pocket, and bringing them along to Harvard this fall. Eschew obfuscation. Seek clarity.