In my junior year of high school I had an English teacher who encouraged the class to use long words. Long words, she felt, would be more inclined to make those grading our AP essays consider us of above average intelligence. Her point of view was a pragmatic one. I now realize she'd been led to this conclusion by a great many years of experience with the exams and students in general- a bigger vocabulary was an easy way to increase your score. But, sitting in the second to last row, I had always felt placing such a heavy emphasis on vocabulary was absurd. We were in AP! We didn't need to expand our vocabulary- more likely than not it was already quite sufficient!

It felt wrong to me that common words were discouraged. I could understand why adjectives like "good" and "large" were insufficient but I could not understand why we had to use "ebullient" instead of "excited" or "spirited". If I found a situation where I felt "ebullient" was more suitable than the alternatives I would use it, but there was no need to press it upon me. It seemed like a lie to me to use words like "adumbrates" instead of just "suggests". As a result, my comparatively laconic writing stood out and was often marked down. I was told that I understood all the major concepts of literature analysis and that I was extremely good at pointing them out but that my essays were not sufficiently wordy to be considered worthy of a high grade.

The problem then, was that my view of what writing should be did not match that of the College Boards idea of what it ought to be. I believed good writing was meaningful but understood as widely as possible. The College Board too, believed that writing should be meaningful but also that good writing should be cryptic. Apparently, the more times the reader needed a dictionary, the better your essay was. Needless to say, I've never really been able to reconcile myself with this assumption but then, I've never been in a position to argue with them about it.

If I were to propose a theory on why the College Board associates vocabulary with intelligence though, I would look to history. Going back to the earliest of literate societies, there has always been a gap between those who could write and whose who could not. Those who could were an elite class, often acting as traders, religious leaders, or in any profession that required record keeping. Often they were rich and held themselves above the general population. This pattern held true until the Renaissance, when education became increasingly available to the masses. The complex arts of poetry and book writing however were still the exclusive ground of intellectually inclined nobles. When literacy did finally reach the lower echelons of society the result was an outburst of crudely written books including many, many pornographic pieces and escapist literature. All of this was written in the language of its audience - colloquial street vocabulary. More "elegant" words were still above them. This notion lives on in a number of western nations today and seems to still be the reasoning behind associating intelligence with the ability to use polysyllabic words on a whim.

The irony is that many of the greatest works of classic literature were written in the language of the people. Pieces like the Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote were both written in simple language, rich with puns and crass humor that even the simplest could understand. Shakespeare wrote to please a crowd of peasants as well as the elite. Dickens used the words of street urchins to fill his pages. In the more modern era novels like Salinger's Catcher in The Rye and Margaret Atwood's Edible Woman were written to be as open to empathy as possible through their language. The power of the messages expressed by these novels was not in the complexity of their delivery but the simplicity.

And it is from there that my 11th grade self's question was spawned. If the point is not to be understood, what is the point of writing?

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