Are big words really the problem we make them out to be?

Why do scientists and doctors use 'big words', and why are they usually made from Latin or ancient Greek words?

To answer that question in a few small words, scientific names are descriptions of things such as plants, animals, microbes, diseases, chemicals and rocks, so people know exactly which kind of thing they are talking about. The names are made in Latin or Greek for historical reasons, but we have continued this process so that we know that they are scientific names and not just general conversation.

Many people feel that scientists use those words to make themselves seem superior to other people who do not have scientific knowledge. And there is an old pattern of this being so, although not in all cases.

However, is it possible that scientists and doctors are not the only ones contributing to the difficulties raised by the so-called 'big words'? Any relationship, including the ones between scientists, doctors and the general public, and between people and words, is a two-way relationship. Both sides contribute to the understanding and the quality of expression. Is it possible that people, in general, give away their power to doctors and scientists, and the way words are used by people in those professions? The answer may be a resounding “yes!”

But here is another question: is that answer a reaction, a negative judgment, a sense of hurt, inequality, resentment, or any other sense of separation? And does a doctor or scientist hearing this question react with a sense of defensiveness, arrogance, superiority, protection, exclusiveness, judgment, identification with a group, hidden hurt or any other sense of separation?

A practical look at big words

Let's have a look at scientific names from a much more practical viewpoint. Once that's done and cleared up, we can revisit the relationships and the personal energy dynamics going on in this subject.

If we take a dispassionate look at Greek and Latin scientific names, we discover something really quite simple that need not produce any reaction or inequality. The words might be used merely as an efficient technical support for the conduct of science and its clear communication. For example, if we look at animals, there are many animals that are distinctly different. Most people know the difference between a horse and a bird. Moreover, most people know the difference between a pony, a racehorse, and a draft horse. And most people know the difference between a duck and an eagle.

But there are lots of different species of animals that look very similar and are hard to distinguish with their common names, e.g. "brown duck". There are lots of different species of brown duck. Just as in plants there are lots of different species of “red gum tree”, with different uses. If you were a scientist studying those species and writing articles about them, or if you were an animal or plant breeder, trader, or perhaps even artist, you might need to know exactly which of the species is being referred to.

And that is where scientific names become extremely useful. They enable us to distinguish between, for example, the brown female of a European duck species which is found all over the world, and the similar-looking Australian and New Zealand brown species. In fact, in the Australian and New Zealand cases the common names are misleading. They are called “Black Duck” and "Grey Duck" when in fact they all look brown!

When you extend this difficulty of distinguishing species by common names across all the millions of species of living things on earth, you can imagine the incredible confusion that would result. It would be very difficult to work effectively as a scientist, horticulturalist, farmer, chemist, book illustrator, trader or breeder of plants and animals, etc. The same could be said of other professions.

Can you imagine, if you were a carpenter on the job, instead of saying “dovetail” you had to say; “that joint between 2 pieces of timber where each side has a series of alternating trapezoid protrusions and indents that fit into a similar series on the other side”?

Or if you were an electronics technician, instead of saying “please pass me a PNP” you had to say; “please pass me a transistor a.k.a. electronic switching device made of N-type semiconductor material sandwiched between two P-type semiconductor layers”?

Or if you were a chef at work, instead of saying: “sauté some chilli”, you had to say: “fry in a pan with minimum oil for a short time with lots of stirring some of the long narrow red fruits that burn your mouth”?

And so on. Every trade and specialised form of work must have simple shortcuts, abbreviations and icons that are universally understood and quick to communicate while on the job or keeping written work concise. And this is certainly true in science and medicine.

Big words for brown ducks

Did you know that many of the names for animals, plants and diseases are actually simple shortcuts for entire descriptive sentences? Thus if we go back to the brown duck example, we can translate the names and remove the mystery.

Three species of brown duck are:

  • Anas platyrhynchos for the Mallard brown duck from Europe,
  • Anas chlorotis for the brown duck of New Zealand, and
  • Anas superciliosa for the brown duck native to Australia.

Obviously, if we just say ‘brown duck’ it could be a bit vague. The scientific names can clear it up for us. The Latin word for duck is 'anas' and is used by scientists to refer to the group of ducks that dabble in shallow water to eat weed but don't generally dive, compared with other types of ducks that dive down to feed.

To break it down:

  • 'Platy' means 'flat or broad'
  • 'Rhynchos' means 'beak'

Thus, Anas platyrhynchos refers to ‘a duck that dabbles in shallow water to eat, and has a broad, flat beak'. (Many types of brown ducks have narrower or more cylindrical shaped beaks).

  • 'Chlor' means 'green'
  • 'Otis' means 'ears'

Thus, Anas chlorotis refers to ‘a duck that dabbles in shallow water to eat, and has a green ear area' (which is how the males of this species look during the breeding season).

  • 'Superciliosa' means 'prominent eyebrow'

Thus, Anas superciliosa refers to ‘a duck that dabbles in shallow water to eat, and has an eyebrow-like marking above its eye’ (which distinguishes this species).

You can see that the scientific name is a precise shortcut to describe quite a bit of information that distinguishes the species of duck; a process that would take much longer to say in English!

Sometimes a scientist formally describing a species for the first time might instead name it after his or her spouse, child, an inspiring teacher or famous person. Sometimes it might be named after the person who discovered it. There is no rule that says this can't be done, just as there are no rules about naming carpentry joints, electronic components, cooking methods, or for that matter streets, cities, types of cars or shoes.

The energy behind big words

Having cleared that up, let's return to the discussion of the energy behind the scenes of the subject.

Do you remember the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”?

It was a made-up nonsense word used for fun in the film “Mary Poppins”, sung by a person who was 'at a loss for words' in a playful and flippant way. After the film, that word began to enter vernacular language, apparently in a similarly playful and flippant way. However, could you sometimes detect an energy of pride and superiority in being able to remember and pronounce such a long and complicated word? In my experience, this was especially so amongst people who felt inferior and resentful towards people who had higher levels of education. To me that ‘gave the game away’.

From the other side, being engaged in scientific and medical research for many years, I've witnessed the superior attitude that some scientists and doctors hold in reference to less educated people. It is an attitude that could produce reactions in those who are less educated and lead to mocking behaviour on both sides. And this interaction, this separative, unequal and disrespectful relationship, is a different issue from the scientific names (or any other technical names) themselves. The technical language is a tool of the trade like test tubes, hammers, saucepans and syringes. All of these tools, including words, are expressions of energy, but that’s another article.

How to work with big words

If ever as non-specialists we wish to understand the 'big words' of technical language, then it is merely a case of finding the translation. There is no mystery and no need to feel excluded, inferior, superior, protective, resentful, proud, or separative in any other way. So we can let the scientists and doctors go about their work being able to use the Latin and Greek words to clearly communicate among themselves exactly which species of plant or animal or which type of disease, chemical or rock they are referring to. We can let the plant and animal breeders and traders confidently know exactly which genetic type or variety they are dealing with. We can leave artists to do their precise illustrations with an awareness of the detailed differences between similar looking species. Just as we can allow carpenters, builders, chefs, tailors, sports people, and all the other trades, specialties and professions to have their language with which to communicate concisely and efficiently exactly what they mean.

It is not the words per se that are the problem in the physical sense, but the way that we use them. If we use them to communicate clearly and efficiently with our professional colleagues, that is great. But if we use them in place of communication to lord it over people, seem superior or to be deliberately obscure, that is not. ‘Big’ words are designed to improve professional communication and understanding, but if we use them with someone who does not speak the same language, we are not communicating. Part of our role, whichever ‘side of the fence’ we are on, is to take responsibility for the communication between us – to speak clearly in a way that the other can understand, to express fully if we cannot understand what the other is saying, leaving no room for feelings of superiority or inferiority, and creating space for understanding and working together.

There is never any need for an 'attitude' from either side – specialists and non-specialists alike. By all of us taking responsibility together for the energy we are in when we hear or use technical language, we can break down the use of ‘big words’ as yet another source of division between us, in our path of return to brotherhood.

P.S. Some big word fun

‘Sesquipedalophobia’ [i] is ‘fear of long words’. Not just any ‘big’ words, but long words. It comes from a multi-lingual mix of Latin and Greek. ‘Sesqui’ (Latin) means one and a half; ‘pedal’ (Latin) means foot; and ‘phobia’ (Greek) means fear. In this case, the medical name of the disease is longer and more fearful than its description!

And here is just about the longest word you'll find in an English dictionary:


Yes, it's a disease. If we translate it we might find that the word is actually shorter than what it takes to describe it precisely!

  • 'pneumono' - pertaining to the 'lungs', 'breath'
  • 'ultra' - 'beyond' or 'extreme'
  • 'micro' - 'small'
  • 'ultramicro' - 'extremely small'
  • 'scopic' - 'when examining, viewing or seeing'
  • 'silico' - 'containing silicon'
  • 'volcano' - 'burning mountain', eruption of 'flame', 'fire'
  • 'coni' - 'dust'
  • 'osis' - 'process, condition or pathological state'

Thus this word 'pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis' (45 characters long) means: 'a pathological process or condition in which the lungs erupt in inflammation due to inhaling silica dust so tiny it can only be viewed under a microscope'. (153 characters). Have fun with that, word lovers!


  • [i]

Filed under

CommunicationEducationHealthy relationshipsIntelligence

  • By Dianne Trussell, BSc(Hons); 17 years in medical and biological research, co-author of 12 peer-reviewed scientific publications.

    Science is the love of my life, and for me it confirms Divine beauty, intelligence, and wisdom. I’ve always felt science to be one with philosophy, religion, art, and music, part of the oneness I feel with everything.

  • Photography: Joseph Barker

    To sketch, paint and question life. To cook, laugh and wonder why. To hug, hum and appreciate the sky, to look into another's eyes. These are some of the reasons Joseph loves life and is inspired to contribute to this amazing site.