Monday, July 08, 2013
Overusing Fancy Words
People with some education often try to impress others by using fancy words to express rather simple concepts. I am thinking of a word used frequently about a generation ago: parameters. It was often used to describe the thinking or the plans of a popular politician, such as John Kennedy. A devotee of Kennedy might talk about creating a universal health care system according to Kennedy's parameters.
Of course, the example is a misuse of the word. The actual meaning of "parameters" doesn't fit the sentence. The speaker might rather have used the word "perimeters" instead. "Perimeters" refers to boundaries and limits. In such a case the speaker would have been saying that the system would have to fit into limits imposed by Kennedy's thoughts or his ability to influence Congress. Still better substitutes would have been "boundaries" or "limits."
Anyway, parameters isn't used in that sense any more. It has retired to the field of mathematics where it refers to adjustable constants in a function or an equation. The constants are adjusted according to the specific problem the mathematician is trying to solve.
The present fancy word that annoys me is "comprise." People will write or say "is comprised of" when they mean "consists of," "includes," or "is made up of." I think the word is related historically to "comprehend" in the sense of inclusion, not understanding. At any rate, the meaning is uncertain and there are simpler words to express the idea, so why not use them? The only reason I can see is to let the reader or listener know that the writer or speaker knows some very big fancy high-falutin' words. It's a bit of snobbery and I don't like it.