Or a word to describe the act of inaccurately using complicated or unusual words (often in an attempt to sound more intelligent)?

I considered 'bombastic' but it doesn't have that quality of inaccuracy.


10 Answers 10


The act of using a word inaccurately could be called catachresis. Catachresis is defined as: "the misuse or strained use of words, as in a mixed metaphor, occurring either in error or for rhetorical effect." Or as: "The use of a word in a way that is not correct, for example, the use of mitigate for militate.

It has the adjective form of catachrestic.

This entry in Wikipedia says catachresis can be either unintentional or intentional. It's a fun word to say. Just be sure YOU use it correctly.

  • 1
    +1 for introducing me to the word, but I sincerely think this is not really the scenario the OP is referring to. Catachresis usually deals with mixed metaphors and is broad in the sense that it can be intentional or unintentional, more like cacography. While I think the OP is trying to describe a person who simply doesn't know the right words but just tries to use big words to feel important. Sep 21, 2012 at 10:38
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    Also don't think this is quite it. Catachresis can also be intentional and used intelligently. Your second example (mitigate) is also more of a malaprosism than catachresis (as in @david wallace's answer).
    – UpTheCreek
    Sep 21, 2012 at 12:55
  • @UpTheCreek, Yep, it can be intentional (as I said). There are examples of Shakespeare using it intentionally. But it also has the meaning of "Misuse of a word out of a misunderstanding of its meaning. The runner literally flew down the track." (from the Wikipedia link).
    – JLG
    Sep 21, 2012 at 14:44
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    @UpTheCreek, It is an example of using the word literally incorrectly.
    – JLG
    Sep 21, 2012 at 15:17
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    @UpTheCreek, I think, in that example, the mistake is based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word literally.
    – JLG
    Sep 21, 2012 at 16:39

It's a malapropism and you may address the person who uses such as Mrs Malaprop.

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    The way I read it, a malapropism must be a substitution of an similar sounding word; although what is similar may be a bit subjective.
    – Jim
    Sep 21, 2012 at 3:08
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    I agree with Jim. affect/effect would be one example. I think this is a specific case, whereas the question was more general.
    – UpTheCreek
    Sep 21, 2012 at 12:48

I think your description of this person requires two words:

1 "inaccurately using complicated or unusual words" = ignorant.

2 "in an attempt to sound more intelligent" = pompous, pretentious

Although bombastic, pompous, and pretentious are often synonymous, each has a different connotation and use. Of these three, I think that only pretentious implies the probability or possibility of ignorance and misuse of words. Pomposity and bombast imply overdramatization rather than deceit.

  • I'm not so sure pretentious says anything about possible ignorance or misuse of words.
    – Jim
    Sep 21, 2012 at 0:51
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    @Jim: I'm not so sure either. But it is related to pretending. I thought of malapropism but rejected that because Mrs Malaprop wasn't intentionally deceitful or pompous or, perhaps, not even unaware of the correct word when calm and uninvolved in conversation, only confused, but a pretentious person is deliberately pompous, probably unconcerned about using the wrong word, and so doesn't mind being an intentional or unintentional fraud. Mrs Malaprop wasn't a fraud, just an accidental comedienne. I may be stretching things a bit here. I see that Chris suggested pretentious too.
    – user21497
    Sep 21, 2012 at 1:44
  • I believe that it is entirely possible for one to sound pretentious without making a mistake ;)
    – UpTheCreek
    Sep 21, 2012 at 13:01
  • Yes, it is. No argument from me on that one. But pretending that one knows something one doesn't is also pretentious. Then, too, pretension (pretentiousness) is almost always a mistake, n'est-ce pas?
    – user21497
    Sep 21, 2012 at 13:11

The word you're looking for is acyrologia. The person who uses such words could probably be called an acyrolog, although that's a bit of a neologism.

If the words being confused are similar sounding, you're dealing with a subcategory of acyrologia called a malapropism or (less frequently) a dogberryism. Mrs. Malaprop is a character in The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Dogberry is a character in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Catachresis can also be the misuse of words, although it connotes an intentional misuse done for a rhetorical purpose.

  • 1
    I think you've hit the nail on the bed. +1
    – Robusto
    Jan 9, 2013 at 17:46

For part (2) of your question

Or a word to describe the act of inaccurately using complicated or unusual words (often in an attempt to sound more intelligent)?

Henry Fowler refers to them as "genteelisms" in his book Modern English Usage.

  • "A word or expression used because it is thought to be socially more acceptable than the everyday word."
    – endolith
    Sep 21, 2012 at 13:52

Given the description, and if you're trying to use it to give something a bit of colour rather than looking for the technical word to describe the way the words are used, I think my favourite descriptive pick would be bluster, or blustering. While not a definite hit for the specific case of using long or complicated words, it certainly carries a self-important air along with the implication of inaccuracy or exaggeration, and the specifics could easily (and, perhaps, entertainingly) be elaborated on later.


I think you’re actually looking for two different concepts.

Where trying to sound more intelligent is concerned I’d be tempted to use the word affected, in the sense of “assumed or displayed artificially; put on for effect; artificial, stilted, ‘got up’ ”  (source Oxford English Dictionary).

There was a great line in an episode of Frasier where, describing such a person, Frasier said, “Nothing is quite so irksome as affected erudition.”

In terms of using words incorrectly, incorrect or any of its variants will do.


The word you're looking for is malapropism.

The term comes from the 18th Century play The Rivals, which satirises the tendency you have described. In the play there is a character called Mrs. Malaprop who habitually confuses impressive-sounding Latinate words to great comic effect. Her name reflects the phrase mal a propos, which is borrowed from French and means ill-suited.


If I understand you correctly, you're mainly referring to the scenario where someone simply uses big incorrect words simply to sound intelligent or smart.

I personally don't think there's currently any one word for this but this can often be observed in people who have low self-esteem and often want to exaggerate their importance.

In that case, I think you can call them grandiose and they can be said to be ego-deprived.


I think you may be looking for acyrologia. It's a form of rhetoric that covers things like malapropism and cacozelia.

  • Before posting an answer, please check that nobody else has already suggested the same thing.
    – herisson
    Jul 23, 2016 at 21:59

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