After only four weeks at Wellesley College, I have noticed the unspoken yet prevalent mindset common to students: that they do not belong here. As students at a respected institution, we tend to downplay our abilities and amplify our insecurities. Yet, I have witnessed countless lecturers assure me and every other Wellesley student that, indeed, our acceptance into this fine institution was no fluke. They assure us we are all here for “a reason,” but sometimes that reason is so unclear and foreign to us that we’ve convinced ourselves to compensate for our lack of knowledge with nonsense terminology.
From classroom discussions to casual chats outside residence halls, the pressure to elevate our vocabulary and appear educated in the eyes of our peers and professors is daunting. Conforming to this widespread practice of using what Slate columnist Matthew J.X. Malady dubs “just-barely-uncommon fingerprint words” constrains creativity and thoughtfulness. Students who limit their vocabulary to words like “ascertain,” “delineate” and “juxtaposition,” while rejecting other synonyms are hurting themselves academically. By clinging to a few favorite words and recycling them into every conversation, each word begins to lose its definition. The fingerprint words become nothing more than vehicles by which students can assert their superior intelligence and ignore the meaning of a discussion. Examples of words Wellesley students use loosely include “paradigm,” “social construct” and “paragon.” While these words are useful in themselves, applying them to vaguely related situations goes against their meaning.
Instead of limiting themselves to obscure words for the sake of giving the illusion of intelligence, students should diversify their vocabulary to express their ideas with greater accuracy. It’s one thing to use a particular word because it fits perfectly into the context of a situation, but to force an idea to agree with one’s personal dictionary is to compromise the idea itself.
Here at Wellesley and at other colleges across America, students — myself included — can have an especially challenging time articulating their thoughts amidst a plethora of opinions telling them how they should think, talk and act. But finding the right word to express one’s thoughts is not impossible. It just takes creativity and an unrestrained vocabulary.
Since my first day here at Wellesley, I have been told this place is the best place to grow, explore and discover the world. I believe every word of it. But how can we as individuals and as a community grow when we resist growth in our own vocabulary?