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Ubiquitous. Pedagogical. Capricious. Quintessential.
It seems as if long, winding words follow us everywhere at Harvard, popping up in every interaction we have or overhear. They are snuck into conversation offhandedly, thrown in as evidence of intellectualism and success, as if they prove one’s worth. Yes, of course, that person must belong at Harvard — they know how to easily and tactfully use the word “embourgeoisement.”
There’s an image of a Harvard student as someone who’s been using words like “sesquipedalian” for years and for whom faltering in their speech is unheard of. They can give presentations with ease and always have an obscure word on hand to express a concept that certainly already has an easier term. “Smart” becomes “perspicacious,” “strange” becomes “selcouth,” and “bragging” becomes “gasconading.”
A large portion of our existence on this campus feels like a race where sounding smart is enough to get you to the finish line.
But we come from different backgrounds, diverse enough to make any standard of ‘smart speech’ wholly unfair. I first encountered the word “pedagogical” two months ago at a Crimson Editorial meeting where it was thrown around rapidly. I then spent two minutes Googling it, and was thoroughly disappointed when I realized it just meant “relating to teaching.”
Not all of us grew up in heavily academic environments, where learning to accommodate this kind of speech came about as naturally as learning to walk. I can’t speak to the experience of having an accent or learning second, third, and fourth languages; I haven’t experienced those unfair struggles that may arise in our predominantly English-speaking university. But still, I know the fear of not sounding ‘smart enough’ all too well.
I find the battles of word choice that I often observe in academic settings startling, aware that my main focus when speaking, as someone with a speech impediment, is to get the words out at all. Sentences become inflated with fancy words for academic validation and approval, their meaning unchanging but their understandability decreasing.
I worry that my inability to compete in these fast-paced, complicated word exchanges will result in a label of incompetency, regardless of how accomplished I am. It is impossible for me to accept the fact that my and others’ disfluent speech has and can harm perceptions of our intelligence.
In environments like ours, people worry intensely over presentations they have to give, citing the possibility of stuttering as their worst fear. If they do end up faltering, they sit down nervously, begging others to tell them that it wasn’t noticeable. (It almost never is.) We focus too much on how we speak, and too little on the actual content of what we are saying and sharing with others.
Because what good is intellectual thought if it cannot be understood by your audience? What good is debate if the primary thought on your opponent’s mind is not the topic itself, but how to sound smarter than you? Our commitment to critical thinking seems to decrease the more we realize that we can get our validation from simply sounding like we understand. What wrongs could come from using simpler words, besides missing the chance to momentarily inflate one’s ego?
I’m not advocating for the eradication of all big words; I understand that their use in professional fields is inevitable and valuable at times. Public speaking skills are often very important, and people will always see value in the ability to eloquently explain confusing topics in ways that are complex yet necessary to their field.
What I am saying, instead, is that how we speak says little about our intellect and much more about our past and identity.
If we want to truly commit to making ourselves and this institution more inclusive, the expectation that we use fancy words must go. Sharing ideas should not scare people into silence as they worry over whether how they sound will meet our arbitrary standards of worthiness.
These standards are hard to escape, though, even for people who realize they exist. I apologize for any excessively big words I’ve used in this piece — seldom can I elude the ceaseless desire to be perceived as intellectually competent.
In better words, I too sometimes want to ‘sound smart,’ and being on this campus isn’t making my situation any better.
April S. Keyes ‘26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
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