Big and little words
Dr Binoy Barman
On one occasion Winston Churchill said, “Little men use big words and big men use little words.” It has been a wise saying since then. Although the significance of his words is self-evident, it needs very little explanation, I suppose. Apparently it seems, for the sake of symmetry, that big people would utter big words and little people little. But the famous British statesman went opposite, giving rise to a paradox. What is the problem of talking big and why is it not befitting the big figures? Why do big words accompany the tongue of little men and little words of the big men? Let us delve a little deep.
We should define first what is 'big' and what is 'little' and what meanings they create when they are collocated with 'man' and 'word'. As adjectives, 'big' and 'little' are ambiguous, if you notice. They can express volume in quantity as well as grade in quality. They can be used to modify concrete as well as abstract objects. We can say, 'big tree' to describe something physically and 'big shelter' to refer to some psychological state. We can say 'big building' to talk of concrete object and 'big success' of abstract subject. The same holds true with the usage of 'little'. The fluidity of the words has spawned a lot of idiomatic expressions. For example, with 'big' we get: 'big fish', 'big gun', 'bigwig' 'big shot', big wheel', 'big noise' 'big boys', 'big business', 'big money', big cat' 'big day' 'big game', 'big hair', 'big mouth', 'big name' etc.; and with 'little' we get: 'little folk', 'little finger', 'little consequence', 'little wonder', 'little one', and 'little tin god' etc. 'Little' can be personified by indefinite article, which makes a big difference in meaning. 'A little' means a small amount, but 'little' (without 'a') means nothing or almost nothing.
When 'big' and 'little' are used in association with 'word' and 'man', they assume special meanings going beyond denotations. 'Big word' may literally mean a word which might have multiple syllables with long sequence of letters or sounds. But idiomatically it means 'a difficult word, or a word which expresses a serious or important idea'. Physically speaking, 'big man' may mean a seven-foot-tall-three-foot-wide human figure, but idiomatically it will mean a person who is wise or socially important. By the same token, 'little word' and 'little man' will mean just the opposite. Noticeably, when used with 'word', especially 'big' has a negative connotation. So when one utters big words or talks big, he/she is in fact resorting to unimportant speech albeit sounding important.
Big words are often deceptive. People use big words to impress others with what might be called 'overperformance' -- a fake demonstration. By this they hide their true colour, projecting fabricated image of theirs. Sometimes they become successful and sometimes not, in their mission, depending on the ability/inability of interpreters on the other side. In any case, big words will not give one continual success. Sooner or later, the big-talkers will fall in their own trap of words. They will fail to act up to their claims, and will be rejected outright.
Talking big is a kind of exhibition tendency, which is ingrained in one's pattern of personality. By uttering big words they want to look big. This habit grows from inferiority complex. As they feel they are small, they pretend to be big. They tend to secure a big place among the big associates. The real wise men are never impudent in their words. They are humble and modest in their expressions. The audacity of uttering big words is often the trait of really foolish people. Those who don't have a proper understanding of their subjects make their discourse unnecessarily complicated.
Political leaders in any society are real big talkers. They know the art of public speech and make promises repeatedly only to break them. We brand all their talking as 'political rhetoric'. The consequence of political rhetoric is not always pleasant. At present we can look at the pallid faces of the 'big' politicians behind bars in our country and understand why they have failed in their career. See, the most corrupt in the lot claimed to be the purest entity and the most gruesome killer pretended to be the most innocent soul in the world. Their words and actions greatly mismatched.
We need an Aristotle to teach them rhetoric -- how to use words appropriately in the benefit of common mass. As big figures they are, they will know how to talk little -- not how to talk big!
The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.