Word Length: Does Size Really Matter?


In 1935, Everett K. Smith raised quite a few heads when he took on the age-old question: does word size matter? For Smith, apparently, it did. So much so, in fact, that he coined the 45-letter word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” just to prove his point. There was already a very good word to describe a lung disease caused by inhaling fine particles of silica: “silicosis.” In fact, there were even coined terms at the time that more accurately conveyed the malady: “black lung” and “miner’s cough.” But for Everett, the efficiency of communication was not his goal; the mightiness of his word length was.

To say that Everett was or is alone in his antics would be foolish. Many a college student has erroneously called on the powers of the thesaurus to fluff up a final paper. “Venerate” sounds much more intense than “fear” and “veridical” much more imposing than “true.” However, to “venerate” a God doesn't mean you necessarily “fear” that God, for example, and how often are people throwing around the phrase "Veridical or False"? Probably never. So what purpose are those words serving?

In a rather famous argument between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the two men went head-to-head in the debate over word size. Hemingway once pitied Faulkner, saying, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the words that I use.” Hemingway’s defense came on the tails of Faulkner’s accusation that Hemingway “had no courage” and “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, "Why need I volumes, if one word suffice” would probably have agreed with Faulkner. If one word can capture what five words strive to accomplish together, how could anyone NOT choose the one word? Why should the lesser known words suffer at the expense of the more common terms, simply because the more common terms are, well, easier? Do the “small” words, as it were, bear more value simply because they are more readily comprehended? Because they necessitate less work or investigation than their “big” word counterparts and, therefore, are more immediately palatable to an impatientaudience?

For the complex-word lovers, it is hoped that those in the Faulkner camp will never stop painting the world with the full spectrum of the English language’s colors. For those of the economical, Hemingway vein, it is hoped that the capacity to express complex emotions through simpler word choices will forever be a pursuit. For it is through these opposing perspectives that one answers the question of the importance of word size: no, word size doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with the word that counts.

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Annika Tubito is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York City and Milan. When she's not writing, reading, or wielding her red pen to edit the heck out of something, she's traveling, traveling, traveling. She loves a good grammar argument. Get her riled up.