TWIB: Bill Buckley and Big Words

Editors’ note: Every week, the Editors will select an article by or a video of Bill Buckley as part of our “This Week in Buckley” series, or TWIB for short. We hope you enjoy!

In all his years of writing, Bill Buckley had a penchant for using big words, and this style of his did not go without criticism. In fact, an editor once wrote to him, saying that he assumed that Buckley used big words because “(1) you like to show off, and (2) you take delight in irritating people.” In response to these charges and others, Buckley defended his vast vocabulary in a noteworthy op-ed in The New York Times from 1986. In his piece he presents the problem as such:

The point here raised—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).

And in his view, sometimes there are words, however unusual or unrecognized, that describe exactly what the author intends, more so than any other word. While keeping the given audience in mind, it is also important to note that “people with vocabularies of the same size are by no means people who know the same words.” Buckley recalls an instance when he was reviewing a book in which he was unfamiliar with over twenty words used: “Knocking these words around at an editors’ session in my office, I would find that, cumulatively, my five colleagues knew them all.”

To further illustrate his point, he makes the following analogy:

[J]ust as the discriminating ear greets gladly the C augmented 11th when just the right harmonic moment has come for it, so the fastidious eye encounters happily the word that says exactly what the writer wished not only said but conveyed, the writer here defined as a performing writer sensitive to cadence, variety, marksmanship, accent, nuance and drama. What of the reader who misses the refinement? Well, what of the listener deaf to the special reach of the C augmented 11th?

That reader has the usual choices: he can ignore the word; attempt, from the context, to divine its meaning precisely or roughly . . . ; or he can look it up. Are these alternatives an imposition? Yes, if the newspaper’s feature that day is on how to treat a rattlesnake bite. You would not instruct the reader to fight the poison a outrance.

Note that these were the choices available in a world without online dictionaries and thesauruses just a right-click away. These same choices remain, but the “imposition” that looking up a word poses today is so much less taxing. Regardless, we recommend reading the rest of this logophile’s article, which is aptly titled, “I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words.”