I have a character that I want to sound very intelligent, well educated, someone who always uses the correct words with no unnecessary filler.

I have found the word 'meretricious' which has the perfect definition I'm after but I wonder if it's just 'a bit too much' - maybe too obvious that I've used a thesaurus and would result in unrealistic dialog.

Does it seem sensible? if not - what alternatives would one recommend? Gaudy and brazen don't have quite the effect I want to reveal this guy's inner workings.

4 Answers 4


It depends who will use the word. If it's one character talking or thinking about another, it's a great word, and will help to characterize both characters in one swell foop. It will also trigger many readers to react in ways that enhance what you're trying to say. Readers who understand the word will get the intent. Readers who have to look up the word will experience meretriciousness. Readers who don't know what the word means, but choose to keep reading without looking it up, will at least know that one character is using such an awfully big word to describe another, which will give them approximately the right meaning anyway.

On the other hand, if the narrator utters the word, and the narrator is not a character, that doesn't characterize the characters, it characterizes the author, and to some extent the author's relationship to the reader. It says that either you expect your readers to know what the word means, or you intend to use words whether or not the readers understand. If that's what you want, go for it.

If not, then show the character being meretricious, and the consequences of that (in the way other characters react), and let readers come to their own conclusions.

  • 3
    As a kid I picked up the approximate meaning of words by being too lazy to look up what they meant when used in fiction but divining them mostly from context. It had the downside of my not knowing how to pronounce any of the big words I basically knew.
    – justkt
    Mar 17, 2011 at 2:07
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    I still don't know how to pronounce lots of great words I understand perfectly well. People just don't use great words enough in everyday speech :P
    – Standback
    Mar 17, 2011 at 8:44
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    I thought "writhing" had a short I for years until I read "Jabberwocky" and saw "reeling and writhing," and realized it was supposed to have the long I of "writing." Mar 17, 2011 at 12:44
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    Now that's not funny. It's not writhing with both 'I's pronounced as in 'is', but as in 'I'? My life changed just now, I'll need to look up many, many more in the wake of this revelation...
    – iajrz
    Mar 17, 2011 at 20:08
  • Excellent, well balanced answer. Thanks
    – RichK
    Mar 18, 2011 at 18:09

Are you saying your character is describing someone as meretricious? If that's the word he would use, by all means use it. I have absolutely no problem making the reader work a little to expand his/her vocabulary. I have actually learned words from stopping and looking something up ("gravid" meaning pregnant and "guerdon" meaning gift are the two which leap to mind, both from Anne McCaffrey).

If it's the right word, use it.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain

If your readers won't know what it means right away, don't use it. Readers should be able to read through your books without having to stop and look words up. If they have to stop, it throws them out of the story. You want reading to be a smooth process in which the reader is completely absorbed in the story.

As for getting advice on other words to use, that'd be more suited for the English.SE rather than the Writers.SE

  • It could be more general question encompassing all languages, but the reasoning in some of these posts are universal and applies to more languages than English. Mar 17, 2011 at 6:59

To whom is your character speaking? You want your character to use "the correct words" - I'd say the most correct words are the ones that will convey the most meaning to the listener. So if your character is talking to someone else who's well-educated and has a large vocabulary, I think this could be the right word. If your character is talking to someone with less education, I think the smart thing for your character to do would be to use a word that will be understood by the listener.

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