Is there a word that describes the unjustified use of a more complex word?

For example, using "didactic" instead of using the simpler "instructive" when the use of "didactic" is not justified in the context, as it could have been swapped with "instructive" without changing the meaning at all. There are some cases where it might be justified, but in our fictional example it is not.

How would you describe such writing or such a literary choice?

  • 7
    Would you accept a non-justifiably complex word? May 3, 2019 at 5:20
  • 1
    OED has both didactic and instructive in frequency band 5, so I'm not sure this is the best example...
    – AakashM
    May 3, 2019 at 9:54
  • @AakashM - You may be right; educational might work better here. Incidentally, I found one website that recommends simpler language, but adds this caveat: Exception: when appropriate, use jargon common in your field. So perhaps didactic would be more appropriate than pretentious in a paper entitled Comparison between didactic lectures and small group discussions among second year medical undergraduates in pharmacology and published in a journal such as the IJBCP.
    – J.R.
    May 3, 2019 at 10:05

11 Answers 11


Obfuscation where the result (intended or otherwise) is to make the meaning unclear.

Pretentious if the intention is to unnecessarily create an impression that the writer is more intelligent than the reader.

  • 3
    not pretentious but pretence, pretension, pretentiousness.
    – Toothrot
    May 4, 2019 at 22:23
  • @Toothrot Yes, pretentious if we are describing such writing or speech. On the other hand, you're right that obfuscation should match the same part of speech. On the third hand, obfuscatory is far less commonly used, which is presumably what Graham was thinking about.
    – lly
    May 5, 2019 at 15:44

Normally you'd say something like "that's an unnecessarily elaborate word".

Except for verbose, none of the following are common, but I've marked the very rare:

  • rococo (adj) having elaborate ornamentation wiktionary (rare)
  • baroque (adj) very elaborate wiktionary
  • elegant variation describes using synonyms to avoid reusing a word wikipedia
  • the lure of the abstract describes the use abstract words instead of concrete ones Plain Words (rare)
  • circumlocution (noun) is a speaking around the topic and being very indirect (rare)
  • pleonasm (noun) covers the case of using too many words wikipedia (academic, rare)
  • sesquipedalian (adj) is the use of long words instead of short, only ever seen humourously wiktionary (academic, rare)
  • logorrhea (noun, rare) is using too many words, also verbosity and prolix
  • high falutin' (adj) is a pejorative phrase for "over-educated": "You and your high-falutin' words, just trying to confuse us!" (US, very informal)
  • 4
    Sesquipedalian is what I would say, although it's a word that would only be understood by those who are already prone to this vice. :)
    – Andrew
    May 3, 2019 at 2:23
  • 1
    Or, even better, sesquipedalian loquacity — though that itself is verging on pleonastic :-)
    – gidds
    May 3, 2019 at 8:38
  • Want another rare and delicious word? How about grandiloquent?
    – Juhasz
    May 3, 2019 at 14:25
  • 2
    ten-dollar word (noun, idiomatic) A long and uncommon word used in place of a shorter and simpler one with the intent to appear sophisticated. May 3, 2019 at 19:03

You can call this flowery language.

According to Cambridge:

flowery (adj.): disapproving
If a speech or writing style is flowery, it uses too many complicated or unusual words or phrases.

Collins says:

flowery (adj.): full of figurative and ornate expressions and fine words
(said of language, style, etc.)

One writing coach advises:

Avoid “flowery” language at all costs! If necessary, throw out your Thesaurus! Readers are more impressed by the quality of your ideas than your use of multi-syllabic terms.

  • 1
    I would choose the word florid for the same purpose. Mirriam-Webster has "very flowery in style, florid prose; also having a florid style, a florid writer."
    – cooperised
    May 3, 2019 at 8:01
  • The thing that makes me struggle with "flowery" as an answer is, how does flowery imply unjustified? In other words, I'm sure there's writing that is flowery on purpose. I could see flowery describing language that was deliberately ornate or beautiful: poetry, lyrics, etc. I guess my point makes sense in light of the Collins definition but not the Cambridge definition.
    – dwizum
    May 3, 2019 at 16:06
  • 1
    @dwizum - I won't say that "flowery language" must imply "unjustified," but, from what I've seen, it's more often used as a negative criticism than as a praising compliment. Websites offering writing tips for resumes and cover letters say: Don’t use flowery language that doesn’t mean anything. Flowery language and excessive adverbs can come off as insincere. And a recent news article said: Sir Peter Bazalgette blames critics and curators for putting barriers between art and the public by using flowery and over-complex language to describe it.
    – J.R.
    May 3, 2019 at 19:35

You can say that they are using big words. The idea behind the expression big words is that instead of using much simpler and more understandable to the average person words, some people intentionally choose to use words that sound more sophisticated, too intellectual or just clever. Oftentimes, the use of such words is unjustified. The main reason people do that is that they probably want to make themselves sound smarter than they really are. Here's how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes this expression:

a difficult word used to try to impress someone

And it also alongside the definition provides the following example sentence:

You don't need to use big words to make your point.


The word pedantic would fit, in the sense of an ostentatious display of knowledge.

Edit: Apparently this sense of pedantic is not very well known so to back the sense I mentioned:

  • pedantic, Merriam Webster (sense 2): "narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned"
  • pedantry, Collins: "(British English) the habit or an instance of being a pedant, esp in the display of useless knowledge or minute observance of petty rules or details"
  • pedantic, Free dictionary (citing the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language): "Characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for academic knowledge and formal rules"
  • 3
    That doesn’t mean what the OP is asking at all. May 3, 2019 at 15:39
  • 1
    @ChrisMelville it might not be a perfect fit depending on the context, but I fail to see why it's "not at all" what OP is asking
    – Erwan
    May 3, 2019 at 16:31
  • +1 That's the first word that came to my mind. It was certainly used in this context whenever I had educated relatives review my work in the editing phases. There are times where using a larger vocabulary is necessary - such as academic terms in an academic environment with the correct context to show that you do indeed know what you are talking about. However, if your audience is other than academia, use the more common and simpler words - otherwise you will be accused of showing off even if that's not your intent. (Some specialists can't help it, lost the lower vocabulary) May 3, 2019 at 17:27
  • 2
    @wolfsshield - pedantic has nothing to do with showing off. Perhaps you are thinking of "pretentious". Pedantic: excessively concerned with minor details or rules; overscrupulous. May 3, 2019 at 19:46
  • @Martin Smith Webster's 4th ed: pedant- 1 a person who puts unnecessary stress on minor or trivial points of learning, displaying a scholarship lacking in judgment or proportion..... I'd say showing off ones vocabulary unnecessarily fits May 3, 2019 at 19:54

Such a choice is a matter of tone and style. I'm not sure that I would ever agree that it could be "not justified" as there is always at least a subtle difference in rhythm and flow, and often in meaning. Intentionally choosing or avoiding words with latinate roots, for instance, can be valid style choices. Intentionally choosing a less well-known term can affect style, possibly giving an academic air, or a more everyday feel to a piece of prose. Also, a word's history, via its etymology, can influence how it will affect knowledgeable readers.

So I might describe such a choice as "using a more intricate style" or "a more complex style". Style should suit purpose, of course. If the intended audience will not be likely to get a nuance, and may well misunderstand a word, that was a stylistically poor choice. If the intended effect will not be enhanced by a particular choice, that is also poor style.



To use long words, usually to sound clever, confuse someone or obfuscate a point.

  • 1
    This word is already included in jonathanjo's answer. (Your definition is different, though – but this answer could be improved if you tell us where your definition came from.)
    – J.R.
    May 3, 2019 at 20:46

The word bombastic seems to exactly describe what you're looking for, because it implies the use of complicated words. Cambridge's definition:-

using long and difficult words, usually to make people think you know more than you do:


To add a few more useful words:

  • Grandiloquent: Pompous or extravagant in language, style, or manner, especially in a way that is intended to impress.

  • Magniloquent: Using high-flown or bombastic language.

Definitons are from Oxford English. (These definitions also indicate pompous, extravagant, high-flown & bombastic as useful words.) I appreciate the irony that these words are themselves grandiloquent :)


Most of the answers above involve such uncommon words as to be self-referential. A more common idiom only mentioned in @Canadian_Yankee's comment would be any of [using a]

twenty-five cent word
five-dollar word
ten-dollar word

[There's been a bit of inflation over the years. My dialect still uses the middle one.]

They all have the same sense:

A long and uncommon word used in place of a shorter and simpler one with the intent to appear sophisticated


An answer has already been accepted, but I think a reasonable alternative that comes to mind is

jargon, which usually implies unnecessarily complex language, usually specific to a certain field.

Using the more complex word outside of that field is almost always unjustified.

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