August 1, 2008

"I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words."

I said I was going to write about the use of the word "eristic," and the reason I wanted a whole separate post about the use of the word in the Mattathias Schwartz article discussed in the previous post is that I found this 1986 article — "I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words" — by William F. Buckley Jr.:
When is it O.K. to use an unfamiliar word? When is it not O.K.? - is endlessly argued, yet even so, sometimes, notwithstanding the debates' endlessness, fresh insights and original formulations are coined. One of these, I think, was Dwight Macdonald's distinction, made in his marvelous survey of Webster's Third for The New Yorker (March 10, 1962), between unusual words (O.K.) and words ''that belong in the zoo sections of the dictionary'' (not O.K.). I should think most people would agree, for instance, that arachibutyrophobia would be an example of the latter (the word defines the fear of peanut butter's sticking to the roof of your mouth). James Jackson Kilpatrick, in his book ''The Writer's Art,'' takes a position on the dogmatic side against the use of unfamiliar words and cites me, however kindly, as a prodigious offender (the Lord delivered Kilpo into my hands, because his proscriptive passage against long & unusual words contained four long & unusual words). Mr. Kilpatrick likes to quote Westbrook Pegler, who denounced the use of what he called ''out of town words.''
The tough — and subjective — question is: Which words are too annoyingly strange to use?

And was it eristic for Schwartz to use "eristic"?
''ERISTIC: (i ris/ tik) adj [ Gr. eristikos, d. erizein, to strive, dispute d. eris, strife ] of or provoking controversy, or given to sophistical argument and specious reasoning.''
If it was eristic to use "eristic," did Schwartz mean to offer word mavens a little inside joke, or — more amusingly — did he mean to send a secret signal to Buckley fans?


Salamandyr said...

I don't mind hearing a new word. "Eristic" actually seems like a good use there.

vbspurs said...


A) You sound pretentious if you use "big words" in conversation, especially in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Not so much in print, or in other languages (where it's seen as an unalloyed positive). So unconsciously one goes by audience. Do they look "educated"? Will they understand.

B) But isn't it just as bad to think to oneself quickly, hmm, better use an "easy" word as he doesn't look like he'll understand eristic? Isn't that condenscending?

Perhaps the finest orator in the English language, Winston Churchill, famously mocked over elaborate language.

He said his "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job" might well have been rendered as "Supply us with the necessary inputs of relevant equipment, and we will implement the program and accomplish its objectives."

Which sentence challenges your very depths?

The answer is manifest.


Smilin' Jack said...

"I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words."

To be eristic, that's an antinomy. To be lapidary is to write with brevity and concision, avoiding big words (literally, it means to write as if you had to carve the words in stone.) A sentence containing the word "lapidary" cannot itself be lapidary. So Buckley's full of it.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I thought lapidary meant a stone or gem worker?

Same this as Victoria said. You sound pretentious or condescending if you use obscure or unnecessarily convoluted words in ordinary conversation. Not so much of a problem when writing.

Jargon and technical language is also something to avoid in speaking. I have to be particularly careful in my business not to lapse into "technical speak" when discussing investments, the financial markets and strategies with clients. It makes the clients feel dumb and I am not communicating.

Anonymous said...

I thought lapidary meant a place where they milk rabbits?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Smilin' Jack's right. Neither of the big words in Buckley's headline fits the situation elegantly or enlarges the reader's understanding of his message; in fact "lapidary" is something of a cliche in high-tone book blurbing and "not eristic" makes a blatantly disingenuous claim. Buckley reached into his bag and came out with a couple of unconvincing, ugly-sounding would-be dazzlers. Also, "debates'" should be "debate's." But the guy's dead, it's not fair to attack him when he can't answer back.

Christy said...

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, and used all manner of big words to annoy and intimidate as big sisters do.

When I was a girl, I spoke as a flirt, and my vocabulary was limited to "Ooooh, really!" and "Yes!"

As a professional, I realized my job was to communicate. I've ended up writing highly technical papers and talking to the public. I've worked with speaking coaches for a few days every year and even more when I've had a public debate coming up. All I know is that those doing the training are adamantly against the $10 words, and I trust their expertise.

Buckley's agenda was do demonstrate the superiority of his ideas, so his use of language worked for him. My agenda was frequently to try to convince a legislator to support a specific project. The last thing one wants to do is make a politician one is lobbying feel dumb. (No, I am not now, nor have I ever been a registered lobbyist. I have always been accompanied by registered lobbyists, so it was all very legal.)

But as an aunt, I speak as an aunt and frequently interrupt myself to say "That is an excellent SAT word!" and go on to spell it and make the nephews guess what it means. I'm very annoying.

vbspurs said...

But as an aunt, I speak as an aunt and frequently interrupt myself to say "That is an excellent SAT word!" and go on to spell it and make the nephews guess what it means. I'm very annoying.


Frankly, "big words" are only effective if you use them without thinking. In short, it's the flow of your speech that impresses people (if that is your intent).

My ear is much more dazzled by an unique turn of phrase than those $10 words.

Most of all, I like people who are quick on the uptake.

You can't SAT that.


Bissage said...

Many years ago, on a grey, bleak winter’s day, I was making my way homeward with my noble company when I chanced to meet a sickly old woman dressed in peasant’s rags sitting by the roadside. She told her sad tale of loneliness and I took pity upon her and spoke kindly and directed my servants to bring her to my house to give her nourishment and a fire by which she could make herself warm and comfortable.

Come the morning I was awakened by the yellow sun and I made my way to see her but she had vanished! I was astonished and disbelieved my own eyes! Where I had last seen her nothing remained but a glittering butterfly that vanished in the instant!

And yet that old crone is with me still. Ever since that day (and it has been many years), every time I have used large words in sprightly, unguarded conversation with a woman (no matter her station) she has leered at my bulging crotch and licked her lips in lusty anticipation of the red hot Saturn V booster rocket that is my penis.

True story.

Bissage said...

Mrs. Bissage gets the assist on that one!

ricpic said...

Bissage goes off the deep end.

Trooper York said...

Hey this post is the shiznitz.

Balfegor said...

When is it not O.K.? - is endlessly argued, yet even so, sometimes, notwithstanding the debates' endlessness, fresh insights and original formulations are coined.

Clearly, the late Mr. Buckley's thesaurus failed him on that one. There's good repetition, and then there's repetition jammed in like a square peg in a round hole. Endlessly => Endlessness?

Balfegor said...

fresh insights and original formulations are coined.

And who coins an insight? Is that even proper English?

Randy said...

I doubt one can coin an insight, but I think GOP congressman Thaddeus McCotter speaking in the House of Representative today coined a phrase that will prove durable: "Pelosi's politburo," as in ""This is the people's House. This is not Pelosi's politiburo."

Apparently, the Democrats voted to adjourn and go on the August recess without voting on offshore drilling. When some GOP members stayed behind voicing their objections, the Democrats cut the power off.

PWS said...

Schwartz is not being eristic by using the word. In fact, Ann is being uneccesarily eristic by even suggesting it.

Only in an argument or dialogue, I think, can use of a word, in and of itself, by disputatious.

Just writing an article and using a $10 word, by itself, is not eristic.

Antagonizing the blogosphere may be eristic, but not use of the word.

Triangle Man said...

Randy, Was there some rule violation, or is Pelosi just playing a smart game if her party opposes offshore drilling? Republicans lost the house. As losers, they have to put up with some obstacles in pursuing their legislative agenda. It pays to be a winner. When the Democrats lost they suffered similar humiliations. The next time Dems lose they'll have to bear it again. The "outrage" expressed by losers when it happens to them does nothing to make them seem more like winners.

Chip Ahoy said...

I do not know the answer to this ponderous question. It's a continuous struggle.

My brother pulled me to the side and challenged, "You know, the problem with you is, you keep using big words to show how smart you are. That puts people off." Meaning himself. I said, "You know your problem is, you're not giving me credit for all the editing I'm doing, for all the wonderfully precise words I'm leaving out for the benefit of my audience, for the mental gymnastics I'm silently performing. If you heard the words I'm leaving out because I suspect they'd piss you off, you'd be astounded and you'd be giving me a little more credit here. That, along with a tendency to project onto me values I don't possess. Give me a break, Dude." It seems to have penetrated. Since then, he's been an ardent supporter, and often translates what he calls dry humor. I notice his own vocabulary improves.

And I learned to drop all discussion of crossword solves.

As to the above, in ordinary speech, I'd consider lapidary, but withhold eristic and arachibutyrophobia. Withhold eristic because of possible misinterpretation. Even spellchecker rejects it, but then spellchecker rejects a lot of perfectly good words so its a worse judge for word-acceptability than my brother and me, and arachibutyrophobia because the listener would certainly get the phobia part but not the arachibutyro part and so they'd know I was talking about fear of something, probably akin to spiders, because of its closeness to arachno, like mites or something, which is just as bad as misunderstanding because fear of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth is comic and fear of mites is serious, thus the humor would be entirely forfeit.

That's the beauty lost in the language spoken by Austin Andrews in the signing of his video Deaf Ninja, making up words as he goes along. He carefully defines them first, ironing over them back and forth pressing out the creases, seeking agreement to your understanding with a lift of his eyebrow, then freely expands and extrapolates on what he created, so you get a box hearing aid, which is large but not as large as Austin is showing it, but that large and unwieldy when strapped to a child, with two jacks plugged in each side ridiculously zipping up separately to his ears like two i-pod wires. There's no word for all that, and yet there is is, a sign neologism used repeatedly, the whole thing, box, jacks, wires, plugs, straps, because it's perfect. But then the comments to the video show that nobody, nobody but his intended audience, had any idea what he was saying exactly even though he troubled himself to say it exactly.

I've completely lost track of which are "out of town" words, love that phrase. I do know, when in doubt, I get an awful lot of mileage out of, "Yeah, right."

rhhardin said...

Lapidary is from Latin and eristic is from Greek, and so normally they should not be coordinated.

Dilapidated describes the phrase, if I may cast the first stone.

Randy said...

Triangle, I imagine it's "all of the above" and then some. The "why" or "how" didn't really interest me, although the idea of congressmen attempting to give speeches in the dark has great mirth potential. All I was saying is that it seems to me that the phrase, "Pelosi's politburo," is a winner. I expect it will find widespread use in fundraising letters.

blake said...

Eristic is such a perfect word to describe the typical internet discussion, I'm ashamed of not having known it. (Quite apart from my love a Greek mythology.)

I don't get what Balfegor is saying though about endlessness. What's wrong with the word?

blake said...


They have to put up with a certain degree of crap, to be sure, but if they're smart, they'll use the crap to paint Dems in a bad light.

After all "the nuclear option" wasn't nuclear until the Reps were going to use it.

Balfegor said...

I don't get what Balfegor is saying though about endlessness. What's wrong with the word?

I am saying it is an ugly, gawky, awkward word, with too many sibilants in close succession to no effect. It's the output of a mad, mechanical process of morphological extension inflicted on a good, solid Anglo-saxon word that has done nothing to deserve such abuse. What are we, Germans?

That and the repetition there just didn't work. I get the sense he just kind of gave up and let it be. Buckley was an excellent writer -- much better than me, to be sure -- but in the excerpts here, he's just phoning it in.

William said...

The world used to be divided into two groups of people: those who used dichotomy to divide the world into two groups of people and those who did not. Words have their moment of flair, their fifteen minutes of fame. Right now I am flummoxed at the number of people who use conundrum in their conversation. I am sure I never once heard that word while I was growing up, but now all the Tiffany's and Ashleys are constantly using it....I don't think eristic will make the cut. The English language has welcomed many Latin and French words into common parlance but is rather discriminatory about Greek words. Who can blame it? Greek words are the cause of much grief.

blake said...


How can you speak so harshly of the lyrical "endlessness"?

Who could forget those great movies, "Summer of Endlessness" and "Love of Endlessness"?

Kowdog said...

I believe it is eristic to question or accuse Schwartz of being eristic for using the word eristic, because there was nothing controversial or specious about his usage. Although the word is not demotic, it is also not esoteric; it is for this reader, apropos to his argument. It's not like he used its greek derivation: erizein. All said, I find it fascinating that the quandaries that these articles explore are still relevant, e.g. the recent case involving the suicide of the Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, and the conviction of Dharun Ravi on all accounts. Although that wasn't a case of trolling, it was to the same effect an act of terrorism.