Ex­press­ive Vocabulary

“Thou shalt not strike terms from oth­ers’ ex­press­ive vocab­u­lary without suit­able re­place­ment.” - me


Sup­pose your friend says: “I don’t buy that brand of dip. It’s full of chem­ic­als.”

Reason­able an­swer: “I’m skep­tical that any of them are harm­ful in these quant­it­ies; we don’t have much reason to be­lieve that.”

Reason­able an­swer: “Yel­low 5? Are you al­ler­gic?”

Reason­able an­swer: “Okay, let’s get the kind with four eas­ily re­cog­niz­able in­gredi­ents.”

No: “Tech­nic­ally, everything is chem­ic­als. Di­hydro­gen monox­ide!”

Ped­antry is sel­dom a way to make friends and in­flu­ence people, but this ex­ample par­tic­u­larly gets my goat be­cause there doesn’t seem to ac­tu­ally ex­ist a word in Eng­lish for the thing you know per­fectly well people mean when they say “chem­ic­als”. When I tried to find one on Twit­ter, the closest op­tions were “tox­ins” and “ad­dit­ives”. But neither is right. “Tox­ins” ex­cludes yel­low 5 - or, whether it does or not might be a point of con­ten­tion; but it isn’t the thing ori­gin­ally ex­pressed with the word “chem­ic­als”. People may want to avoid—or oth­er­wise dis­cuss—“chem­ic­als” for reas­ons other than think­ing they’re lit­er­ally toxic; if I tell a maid I’m sens­it­ive to chem­ical smells but vin­egar is okay this is use­ful in­form­a­tion. “Ad­dit­ives” in­cludes, say, ad­ded sugar, which, while a plaus­ible com­plaint, is a sep­ar­ate com­plaint.


Sup­pose your grandma says, “Okay, no tech­no­logy at the din­ner table.”

Reason­able an­swer: “I’ll put the laptop away to make room for the pota­toes, but I need the phone be­cause I get anxious without it.”

Reason­able an­swer: “Sure, Grandma.”

Reason­able an­swer: “We can try that un­til Uncle Bill starts mak­ing eas­ily fals­i­fied claims about Flat Earth.”

No: “Tech­nic­ally, the din­ner table is a tech­no­logy. And so are your glasses, Grandma.”

In this case a more pre­cise word ex­ists—“elec­tron­ics” am­bigu­ously in­cludes the chan­delier but at least firmly sets aside the ques­tion of whether your grandma wants you to eat na­ked and with your bare hands. But re­fus­ing to know what she meant be­cause she could have got­ten closer to say­ing it, not even lit­er­ally (she isn’t be­ing meta­phor­ical), but tech­nic­ally, pedantic­ally, defin­i­tion­ally? This is both a bad so­cial move and a bad epi­stemic one; you’re hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion on a level that is wholly about verbal wall­pa­per. Do you prefer to say “elec­tron­ics” or dip into syn­ech­doche with “screens” or spend nine syl­lables on “in­ter­net en­abled devices”? Are you ac­tu­ally un­sure if your grand­mother wants you to set aside your smart watch, dumb phone, or elec­tric blanket of in­ter­me­di­ate in­tel­lect? Use your own words, ask your own ques­tions, but don’t en­force an in­ad­equate pre­scriptiv­ism with feigned in­com­pre­hen­sion while your in­ter­locutor only wants you to pass the peas.


Thou shalt not strike terms from oth­ers’ ex­press­ive vocab­u­lary without suit­able re­place­ment. It’s a pet is­sue of mine; it’s my pinned tweet. “Suit­able re­place­ment” means suit­able across the board, Pareto im­prove­ment as seen by the user along every axis a word can have. I think people are within their rights to re­ject a pro­posed re­place­ment for not mean­ing the right thing, sound­ing ugly, be­ing one syl­lable longer, be­ing hard to spell, not rhym­ing in a poem they’re try­ing to write, and vague gut feel­ing that you’re just try­ing to con­trol them. I ex­tend this as far as “gypsy” and “Eskimo”, at least (and with slightly less fer­vor to a slur bey­ond that if you really don’t have an­other term for Brazil nuts).

Suit­able re­place­ment is a very high stand­ard. It has to be. If you take someone’s words away—and re­fus­ing to un­der­stand them when the prob­lem is not in fact in your un­der­stand­ing does that, since words are tools to com­mu­nic­ate—they are very direly crippled. Many people think com­mu­nic­at­ively; while you might not be their only out­let for work­ing through their ideas, so­cial shame for im­pre­cise lan­guage can do your work for you across the board if you hit someone vul­ner­able hard enough. If you of­fer them worse words in­stead of ex­pect­ing them to guess, they might only be crippled to the de­gree of wear­ing un­com­fort­able shoes, but that’s still too much. Don’t set up shop a block farther away than you had to and dress code folks for wear­ing Crocs. Com­mu­nic­a­tion is already dif­fi­cult.

Some things I am not say­ing:

  • you, yes you, have to talk to people who use words you can’t stand or in ways you can’t stand

Nah. Block people on every web­site you use over ship names and dis­own your sis­ter for say­ing “moist” for all I care. You also have my blanket per­mis­sion to use any sar­castic de­fense mech­an­ism that works for you against your ab­us­ive par­ents if you have those, or whatever.

  • you should not of­fer people bet­ter words for whatever value of “bet­ter”

By all means of­fer. “I think the pre­ferred term is ‘trans­gender’ this week.” But if they can’t abide the dif­fer­ence in shade of mean­ing or mouth­feel, maybe even if they overtly an­nounce it’s just be­cause they want to call it like they see it and they see it in some hor­rid way, don’t try to cor­rect them by pre­tend­ing to be miss­ing that sec­tion of your dic­tion­ary when you really aren’t.

  • Humpty Dumpty was right, words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, all is de­script­iv­ist chaos, “lit­er­ally ir­regard­less”

No. My ex­amples have in com­mon that they point at things and you can tell what things they are by be­ing a speaker of the lan­guage in the con­ver­sa­tional con­text. If someone starts call­ing card­board boxes “pants” for no reason they’re just wrong and you don’t have to learn their stu­pid code.