Eloquence or elitism?

Feb. 19, 2010, 12:50 a.m.

“Consequently, the aforementioned juxtaposition presents an irrefutable manifestation of the inherent dichotomy of insert-another-really-long-word-here in a post-9/11 world.”

Admit it. At some point during one’s academic career, probably at an ungodly hour closer to sunrise than sunset, almost every Stanford student has conjured up a sentence–or two pages–like the one above. Many have been caught in the act of integrating complex vocabulary into everyday speech. But why–is this just another part of the intellectual atmosphere of life on the Farm?

“Most students write as if they are trying to be pedantic, as if they wanted to sound like stuffy academics or old fogies–I am astonished at the lengths they go to!” exclaimed psychology professor Herbert Clark.  While he has preached that students should “never write a word or phrase you wouldn’t use in conversation,” some tend to blur these lines, to the chagrin of friends and peers.

Daniel Oppenheimer, a former Stanford student and professor who currently teaches at Princeton, conducted a study while on the Farm to investigate what he called “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” His research produced very interesting results.

“A majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence,” the study revealed. However, Oppenheimer found that such “needless complexity” leads to negative evaluations.

Stanford students and professors alike expressed frustration when they encountered unnecessarily complicated vocabulary in written text, and considered overly verbose writers less intelligent because of their diction.

“It seems possible that other dimensions such as liking, sociability or trustworthiness could be impacted as well,” Oppenheimer concluded. “Students everywhere I have ever taught underestimate the importance of being clear and concise.”

And when it comes to speech, these negative effects seem to be magnified.

“I say that people who use the phrase ‘incredibly problematic’ ought to insert their name as the subject of the sentence!” joked Justin Lee ’13.

“At Stanford, you don’t get cool points for trying to look smart,” added Chanh Nguyen ’11.

Lee and Nguyen are part of a large group of students who tend to frown upon what they view as pretentiousness, and will actively point out that “you’re just not supposed to say that in real life.”

Most of the accused are aware that “using big words” could potentially be problematic, but find it difficult to separate academic writing from everyday speech when they devote so much conscious effort to the former.

“What I say sounds like it should be written down,” explained Jamie Ray ’13. “But it is just weird when spoken.”

A few brave souls, however, embrace lexiphanicism–the use of excessively learned and bombastic terminology–both in and out of class.

“I find no problem with my use of a diverse lexicon,” said Taylor Brady ‘13. “But, only if you don’t pause on a word to emphasize it, because that indicates that you care whether or not people find your vocabulary impressive, and that’s pretentious bull…”

Brady attributes his speech and writing habits to nature rather than conscious intention.

“My style of conversation comes from years of gifted education, personal exploration of classic literature and a vigorous curiosity about language beginning when I read the dictionary as a kid,” he said.

Brady also pointed out an oft-overlooked benefit of having a wide vocabulary.

“When I learned Spanish, I found it facile to understand many words because I could recognize their English conjugates, even if the word was not a common part of modern American vernacular,” he explained–misusing the word “conjugates” when he meant “cognates.”

Other students have a more lighthearted take on the subject.

“One of my favorite words is ‘lexiphanicist’–someone who uses big words to show off,” said Maia Peirce ’13. “It’s awesome because you kind of can’t use it without being one.”

“I like people who say big words because they make me laugh,” added Ruby Lee ’13.

Rachel Liaw ’11 probably had the most interesting take on appropriate vernacular.

“I personally think that everyone should revert back to Jane Austen-era speech,” she said. “That’s how I’m going to reject all my suitors!”

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