Do Big Words Really Matter?

By Evan Hierholzer

Does a person’s frequent implementation of sesquipedalians indicate about him anything other than the probability that he would be insufferable dinner company, or that he thus proves himself an obnoxious pedant?  I would argue that, in today’s frenetic, cybernetically-driven quasi-chaos of a world, characterized by severely abridged attention spans and a seemingly voracious appetite for convenient, curt sound bytes, the answer is a thoughtless and pragmatic “no.”  An unfortunate response given the fact that, indeed, a voluminous vocabulary serves not only a practical function, but also may represent the key to solving larger social ills.  

In other words, words, and the number of them that we know, should not be relegated to the realm of the quirky, academic, ethereal and ultimately useless, but rather, should be enshrined as a serious, realizable educational goal. 

In a “A Wealth of Words,” a fascinating article by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, the author outlines, among other phenomena, how vocabulary-size, as assessed by predictive tests such as the SAT, indicates the future success or failure of students and workers.  Deploying evidence that shows the encouragingly, surprisingly calculable cognitive benefits of extensive vocabulary networks, Hirsch argues against “the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s.”  By this he particularly means educational ideologies which have characterized American education for several decades, that is, pedagogies emphasizing processes or skills rather than specific content.

It is the latter which, Hirsch argues, develops the necessary word/content associations that ensure effective vocabulary-building and strengthen cognitive processing skills.  A brief survey of many educational textbooks supports Hirsch’s general assessment of American pedagogy.  The American educational models of the past decades have emphasized authentic school assignments (ones to which the kids can relate), the fact that knowledge is constructed rather than implanted, and that classrooms should revolve around the participation and central role of the learner rather than the expertise of the instructor.

Currently undergoing secondary teacher certification in the State of Texas, I have been instructed mainly in the school of constructivism and related educational theories.  While I am not in the least opposed to the majority of constructivism’s tenets, its move away from the conveyance of, in Hirsch’s words, “mere factual knowledge,” constitutes a legitimate educational concern.  Hirsch points to vocabulary-building as a corrective to American education, and far from interpreting his prescription as a reversion to behaviorist models, which presented the student primarily as a passive, impressible vessel, it should be viewed as form constructivism, wherein students actively discover new words and form association with previously known vocabulary.  It seems as if much of learning new words is simply forging new contextual connections and linguistic associations.

It is precisely this constructive, associative quality of vocabulary augmentation which makes it an effective intellect booster.  Hirsch shows that single words serve as links to greater pools of knowledge and concepts, to which the words are associated.  Thus, Hirsch, with amusing simplicity remarks, “knowing more words makes you smarter.”

As Hirsch comments, the details of vocabulary construction and its effect on mental processes are still the subject of much research.  His argument, however, rightfully provokes a much-needed reappraisal of the American school system and cogently proposes the genuinely educative, intellectual properties of vocabulary-building.  

At the very least, we might shed our distaste for learning new words, even long, obscure ones, and proudly embrace the variety and robustness of the English language.  Who knows, our national future may depend on our disposition toward our native tongue, and today’s admirable trend toward acceptance and toleration may need to extend even to the quirks and the idiosyncratic, polysyllabics of our own American English.   


Evan Hierholzer is a junior at the University of Dallas majoring in English. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.