I love the edict against “fake-smart words” in The Bad Style Guide in this month’s print edition of Vanity Fair. These words are banned from the magazine because they “suggest a non-smart person trying too hard to sound smart.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted when I recall an unusual, often longish, word that adds layers of meaning and fits perfectly. For example, I love serendipity and ubiquitous. However, I  use them only with people who understand them or could infer their meaning from the context.

But let me draw the line at verisimilitude, which Mignon Fogarty includes in her book Grammar Girls’s 101 Words to Sound Smart.

When asked for an example by Mark Ragan in this interview, she looked “fake smart” and did not add to my appreciation of, choke, gluten-free cookies.

To find more, I searched for words that other people think are smart. From their lists, I plucked words that don’t flow easily from or to most people or say more than the simpler alternative.

Here’s my list, which I intend to grow, culled from Vanity Fair, Grammar Girl, Jennifer Copley and the  folks at American Heritage dictionaries.

  • accolade
  • doff
  • florid
  • garner
  • garrulous
  • ignoble
  • mnemonic
  • omnipresent
  • opine
  • paradigm
  • panegyric
  • postulate
  • privation
  • preternatural
  • proclivity
  • stratagem
  • tome
  • verisimilitude

Note that words beginning with the letter p seem to be over-represented, possibly because of my counterpredilection for this voiceless bilabial plosive. Just kidding. Got that from Wikipedia. You know I’m not smart enough to know what that means, so I won’t pretend.

I have not provided any definitions, partly because it’s so easy to check online  but mostly because you will likely never need to use these words.

Still, maybe you’ll be tempted to slip  in “verisimilitude” the next time you have  a desire to impress or need a break from overworked “authenticity.” But be careful about using supposedly smart words. You don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard to look smart. Like me trying to look stylish by squeezing into my daughter’s trendy clothes.

Fake smart words are related to but  differ from buzzwords,  which are repeated too often. Fortunately, fake smart words are deployed less frequently. Because of that, they make you stand out, but not in a good way.

One more caveat: If you are talking, make sure you are pronouncing fake-or-not smart words correctly, a problem for people who learn new words by reading, not listening, that I will address in the future. Can you say behemoth? I couldn’t, until it became the name of a ride a local amusement park that was repeatedly proclaimed in radio ads.

Please share your fake smart words so we can help more people avoid embarrassment. Or plead the case for words that should escape my censor’s knife.

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7 thoughts on “Fake smart words to avoid

  • November 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm
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    Good list. The only word I use is “garner.” Not sure why I like it!

    • November 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm
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      We know you are smart so it works. You are garnered our respect. Earned it too.

  • November 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm
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    Great list! Reminds me of the type of words Conrad Black likes to pepper throughout his conversation.

    The back of CP Caps and Spelling has a list of words it recommends be replaced by “plain words” it says “may do the job better” than long, unfamiliar or formal words, aka your fake smart words. The one that bugs me the most is “eschew.” No human being I know would ever use it instead of “avoid.”

  • November 8, 2012 at 10:24 pm
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    Good ones. Let’s add ‘obfuscate’ too.
    Can you imagine how the inmates felt talking to Conrad? And what about his recent TV itnterviews? How can a smart man make himself look so stupid?

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