Intelligent Words

The American Heritage Dictionaries editorial staff has compiled a list of 100 words they believe make writers and speakers sound intelligent without being pompous or resorting to obscure terminology. The following is a selection of some of my favourites, followed by a longer list of smart words that didn’t make the cut but are still worthy of mention.

Some Top 100 Smart Nouns

    • Acrimony – rancour, spite, bitterness, hostility, ill will
    • Anomaly – irregularity, incongruity, variance, abnormality
    • Dichotomy – division into two contradictory or exclusive entities; something with two contradictory qualities
    • Euphemism – inoffensive or agreeable substitute for an expression that may be distasteful or offensive
    • Harbinger – herald, portent, omen, forerunner
    • Misnomer – inappropriate designation or incorrect name
    • Non Sequitur – a response unrelated to or not following logically from a previous statement
    • Panacea – cure-all, magic potion, universal remedy
    • Paradox – inconsistency, contradiction, impossibility, illogicality
    • Rhetoric – oratory, public speech
    • Sycophant – flatterer, toady

Some Top 100 Smart Adjectives

    • Caustic – scathing, acerbic, sarcastic
    • Esoteric – obscure, mysterious, cryptic, arcane
    • Fastidious – fussy, finicky, particular
    • Glib – persuasive, smooth, slick
    • Gregarious – extroverted, sociable, unreserved, convivial
    • Idiosyncratic – individual, personal, distinctive, eccentric, peculiar
    • Infinitesimal – minuscule
    • Insidious – sinister, menacing
    • Lurid – shocking, explicit, vivid, sensational
    • Maudlin – overly sentimental, mawkish, soppy
    • Mercenary – serving only for sordid advantage or money
    • Ostentatious – showy, flamboyant, pretentious, grandiose
    • Perfunctory – unthinking, dutiful, obligatory, token, automatic
    • Quintessential – typical, prototypical, archetypal, model, standard
    • Stoic – unaffected by or not showing response to pain, distress, or other discomfort
    • Suave- smooth, polite, urbane, debonair, sophisticated, charming, gracious
    • Ubiquitous – everywhere, ever-present, omnipresent
    • Untenable – weak, unsound, invalid, shaky, flawed, indefensible, unsustainable
    • Zealous – enthusiastic, passionate, fervent, ardent, obsessive, fanatical, extreme

Some Top 100 Smart Verbs

    • Equivocate – prevaricate, beat around the bush, vacillate
    • Finagle – obtain by indirect or convoluted means or through trickery
    • Malinger – feign or exaggerate incapacity or illness to avoid work or other duties
    • Ostracize – exclude, shun, snub
    • Revel – celebrate, take intense pleasure in something
    • Waft – drift, float, be carried on a breeze

Smart Words That Didn’t Make the Cut

There are a number of clever words that weren’t among the 100 chosen by the American Heritage Dictionaries editors but make great additions to academic writing.

Smart Nouns

    • Consternation – dismay, disquiet, concern
    • Conundrum – puzzle, riddle, mystery, challenge, problem
    • Credulity – gullibility, naivety
    • Diatribe – tirade, invective, harangue, rant
    • Foreboding – apprehension, premonition
    • Hubris – exaggerated self-confidence, excessive pride
    • Hybrid – cross, mixture
    • Implication – insinuation, inference, suggestion
    • Lassitude – tiredness, fatigue, lethargy, inertia, apathy
    • Mnemonic – memory aid (i.e., rhyme or formula)
    • Paradigm – theoretical or philosophical framework
    • Paragon – model, ideal, epitome
    • Pastiche – an artistic, architectural, or literary work that imitates or is comprised of a hodgepodge of selections from prior works
    • Panegyric – speech offering elaborate or formal praise
    • Pathos – sorrow, grief, pity, suffering, tragedy, misery
    • Paucity – scarcity, lack, rarity, dearth
    • Phalanx – an arranged group of things, animals, or people; a digital bone in the foot or hand
    • Pique – temper, resentment, annoyance, anger
    • Plasticity – flexibility, agility, smoothness, grace
    • Predilection – fondness, partiality, preference, penchant
    • Privation – hardship, deprivation, adversity, poverty
    • Proclivity – liking, appetite, inclination
    • Propensity – tendency, inclination, predisposition, predilection
    • Ramification – consequence, result, implication, effect
    • Stratagem – trick, ruse, ploy, scheme
    • Surfeit – excess, surplus, glut
    • Temerity – nerve, audacity, gall
    • Umbrage – offense, resentment, indignation
    • Xenophobia – hatred, fear of, and/or prejudice against strangers or foreigners

Smart Adjectives

    • Aberrant – abnormal, deviant, anomalous, irregular, atypical
    • Amicable – friendly, harmonious, cordial, agreeable
    • Asinine – silly, stupid, foolish, idiotic
    • Astute – shrewd, smart, perceptive, judicious, incisive, wise
    • Audacious – daring, bold, overconfident, impudent
    • Belligerent – aggressive, argumentative, quarrelsome
    • Boisterous – energetic, animated, lively, rowdy
    • Cantankerous – bad-tempered, irritable, crabby, argumentative, difficult
    • Capacious – large, voluminous, roomy
    • Circuitous – roundabout, indirect, meandering, winding
    • Culpable – guilty, to blame, responsible, liable
    • Dogmatic – rigid, inflexible, narrow-minded, authoritarian
    • Dour – sour, stern, grim, severe, harsh, unfriendly
    • Eclectic – diverse, assorted, miscellaneous
    • Fallacious – untrue, misleading, erroneous, wrong
    • Florid – elaborately decorated; ruddy
    • Fractious – irritable, peevish
    • Frenetic – frantic, hectic, frenzied
    • Garrulous – talkative (to an annoying level)
    • Gauche – awkward, tactless, graceless, crude
    • Guileless – honest, straightforward, open, innocent, naive
    • Ignoble – dishonourable, shameful
    • Inane – silly, ridiculous, idiotic, frivolous
    • Innocuous – inoffensive, harmless, innocent, safe, bland
    • Insipid – dull, bland, wishy-washy, trite
    • Inviolable – unbreakable, sacred, unassailable
    • Irresolute – indecisive, vacillating, unsure
    • Lackadaisical – apathetic, careless, lazy, relaxed, laissez-faire, casual, lax, easy-going
    • Loquacious – talkative
    • Malleable – impressionable, acquiescent, flexible, pliable
    • Nascent – budding, promising, emerging
    • Nonchalant – casual, offhand, laid back, blasé
    • Obdurate – obstinate, stubborn, inflexible, unyielding, immovable
    • Oblique – slanted, sloping, at an angle, leaning
    • Odious – horrible, loathsome, revolting, detestable, repulsive, obnoxious
    • Omnipresent – ubiquitous, all-pervading, universal
    • Overweening – arrogant, pompous, haughty, presumptuous, conceited
    • Parochial – narrow-minded, close-minded, provincial, insular, hidebound
    • Pejorative – derogatory, negative, depreciatory
    • Peripheral – tangential, marginal, nonessential, sideline
    • Pernicious – destructive, harmful, evil, insidious, spiteful, malicious
    • Pithy – terse, to the point, concise, succinct
    • Pivotal – essential, crucial, key, critical, central
    • Plausible – reasonable, believable, credible, conceivable
    • Poignant – moving, touching, emotional, sad, tender
    • Preternatural – extraordinary (often used in relation to psychic or supernatural phenomenon)
    • Prodigious – extraordinary, exceptional, phenomenal, impressive
    • Profane – blasphemous, disrespectful, sacrilegious
    • Profligate – extravagant, wasteful
    • Prophetic – visionary, predictive
    • Prosaic – mundane, banal, dull, ordinary
    • Pungent – strong smelling, acrid
    • Raucous – harsh, rough, strident, grating; wild, boisterous, disorderly, riotous, unruly, noisy
    • Rudimentary – basic, simple, elementary, undeveloped
    • Sacrosanct – sacred, holy, untouchable
    • Salient – most important, significant, relevant
    • Slipshod – careless, slapdash, shoddy, sloppy
    • Solicitous – considerate, attentive, concerned, caring
    • Specious – false, erroneous, baseless, inaccurate, unfounded, misleading
    • Surreptitious – furtive, secret, sneaky, covert
    • Tangential – peripheral, divergent
    • Tantamount – equivalent, the same as, synonymous, identical, indistinguishable
    • Tenacious – persistent, stubborn, resolute, dogged, determined, steadfast
    • Unilateral – one-sided, independent
    • Vacuous – empty-headed, stupid, inane
    • Variegated – multicoloured
    • Virulent – venomous, bitter, vituperative, spiteful; dangerous, potent, strong
    • Vituperative – insulting, abusive, malicious, slanderous, scathing
    • Vociferous – loudly vocal, raucous, strident
    • Voracious – insatiable, ravenous

Smart Verbs

    • Atrophy – waste away, wither, weaken, shrivel, degenerate
    • Construe – interpret, take to mean
    • Galvanize – spur, stimulate, rouse, electrify, incite
    • Impel – push, force, drive, compel, urge, coerce
    • Palliate – ease symptoms without curing a disease; moderate the intensity of something; make apologies or excuses in order to hide the magnitude of something
    • Postulate – assume, hypothesize, suggest, propose
    • Proliferate – propagate, multiply, reproduce, breed, grow, flourish, increase
    • Recapitulate – summarize, recap
    • Ruminate – ponder, reflect
    • Stultify – impair, invalidate, have a dulling effect on
    • Transpose – swap, reverse, switch, invert
    • Vacillate – waver, hesitate, be indecisive, fluctuate

Word lovers may also wish to read Funny Words and Beautiful Words. For a full list of writers’ articles and resources, visit the Writing Resources page.

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