I love my ten-dollar words. Since I can remember I had a problem of register. Another ten-dollar word, right there. Register. Register is what linguists call the mix of syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation - the mix you adapt depending on the purpose of what you're saying, to whom you're saying it, and where. You don't speak in the same way when you're talking to your boss as you would talk to your sibling or romantic interest. You don't speak in the same way standing behind a lectern as you would with a beer in your hand in a bar. That's registers for you, in a nutshell.
Let's digress and make circles around registers and their duplicity and slipperiness. The circles we're making travel the well-trodden path of my obsession - lazy obsession - with language and speaking English, and come back to something academic. Note that I do no academic research on registers or language, so most of this is my rambling.
The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that English is a foreign language for me. You don't have such a good command of registers in a foreign language. Having a selection of registers and changing them appropriately takes a lifetime to perfect, and you're not always that good at it. It's about a feeling for the situation and experience of using the language in varied settings. I also noticed that some people, even in my native language, are better at it than others.
The second thing is related to vocabularies and how I learned English. My English mostly comes from books. I noticed years ago how the vocabulary I can pronounce is much more constricted than the vocabulary I use when I write. English is just such a mess with the pronunciation rules that in the end I know more words than I can say properly. I learned the words and what they mean, which doesn't necessarily translate to being able to pronounce them.
Combining the above two - the problem of switching registers and the fact that most of my English comes from books - leads to the fact that I revel in ten-dollar words. Okay, okay, I have to admit, this is also exacerbated by the fact that I really enjoy good English. This has nothing to do with grammar - my explicit awareness of English grammar is not that good anyways - but it has everything to do with the flow of the sentence, the melody of the words, and the potential layers of meaning you can find in all of that.
Speaking and writing beautifully is all about pace. Grammar fades into irrelevance in comparison. Grammar is the refuge of petty souls.
Now, let's come back to the trouble arising from the combination of switching registers and the fact that my English is literary English - or even worse, academic English. To begin with, I mostly have a register and not registers. It is this weird mix of puffed up anachronisms you would find in novels and philosophy books on one hand; academese if you will, and pop culture on the other. It's quite a patchwork assemblage - pieced from bits and pieces of language that do not usually meet. And it also means that I have scarcely anything else to switch to. I do have the sense not to exclaim: "Oh fucking chicken shit!" at a fancy dinner party, but not much more. The subtleties are lost, because I don't have registers - I have a patched up continuum that is my English. It's always there, pretty much the same.
It's good for the university. Serves me quite well there. A bit unwieldy and an odd kind of high-brow outside the university. Peppered by colloquialisms found somewhere in American English heard in this or that movie or song, stitched together by a vocabulary bigger than I can pronounce (which leads to some uneasy situations, like when I want to say 'recalcitrant' but I mumble a bit and end up with 'uncooperative', because I can't remember how to pronounce the goddamn rec-word mid-sentence - recalcitrant is a recalcitrant word), and crowned by my proclivity to sound smart - it actually sounds like the language of an uneasy snob. Uneasy because he's not actually that good at the pronunciation or the grammar part, but he does his utmost to sound learned.
This irks me. I don't like ten-dollar words for their own sake. I enjoy how they sound and the subtleties of meaning they can convey. There is a beauty in smart words that come packed in compact layers of meaning, that have been explicitly re-negotiated by whole communities of people who are very much aware and quite pedantic about their words.
The melody of an elegant sentence hides multiple exegeses. The words are not only beautiful, they are beautiful because they come pregnant with meaning.
I ended up writing a whole text on ten-dollar words because of the lecture I attended last week. A disconnected stream of thought on language, if you will. The lecture that started this logorrheic (!) stream was given by an expert in a field I am scarcely familiar with, and this was complicated even more by the complexity of her language. She did not convey ideas, she conveyed ideas clothed in complexity. I figured her presentation lay somewhere between a postmodern instinct for multiplicity, academic expertise, desire to be precise and embedded within the relevant literature, and showing-off. Those things are probably contradictory. It also made me think: Would I notice the amount of ten-dollar words if the lecturer was a man? Is it something I notice because of unconscious sexism, in the case of a female historian talking in a probably appropriately learned register in an academic setting? Or was something about it off, even irritating? I'm still not sure. It made me think that this is how I would feel if I heard myself talking, sans the self-assured air of expertise of the lecturer.
It made me think of the language I use. I think we need to control for our extremes, whatever they might be. In my case, I should opt for simple words instead of ten-dollar ones whenever I can. My sentence structure could bear some trimming and care too. Who knows, maybe one day I even develop multiple registers and stop sounding like an uneasy snob.