Big words, small words, little gray words and florid ones too: I love them all. Not necessarily equally, but each has its place and time.
The common thinking goes, however, that only pretentious or insecure individuals would use what used to be called five dollar words (back when that was a lot, not a latte). I disagree. Golly, what’s wrong with an evocative term like “palimpsest” or “gimlet-eyed” when they are just the right ingredient? (For that matter, what’s wrong with “evocative”?) Instead of rolling his eyes, shouldn’t the reader turn his gaze to a dictionary?
The point of communication is to connect with others, absolutely. The point is not to talk down from your lofty pile of words. Here’s a point of view from an author I greatly respect:
“The person who says “adamantine” when in plain talk he means “immovable” or says “coquette” when we would understand him better if he said “flirt” may have a big vocabulary,” writes David Schwartz in his great book The Magic of Thinking Big. “But does he have a big thinker’s vocabulary? Probably not. People who use difficult, high-sounding words and phrases that most folks have to strain themselves to understand are inclined to be overbearing and stuffed shirts. And stuffed shirts are usually small thinkers.”
Ouch. It’s true that what matters in communication is the effect words have on others, not the size of the vocabulary … but still can’t we luxuriate in the richness of the language? Once in a while, just a little? Broccoli benefits from a little béchamel now and again, right? (Béchamel? Happy to oblige: http://bit.ly/bechamelsauce.)