I’m a fan of Rick Harbaugh‘s work (with Nick Feltovich and Ted To) on counter-signaling. The motivating paragraph of “Too Cool for School” still blows me away:

Contrary to this standard implication, high types sometimes avoid the signals that should separate them from lower types, while intermediate types often appear the most anxious to send the “right” signals. The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays… Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response.

Today another example struck me: The best writers – like George Orwell – usually stick to short and simple words. In fact, in his legendary “Politics and the English Language”, the second rule of good writing is “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” The third-stringers, in contrast, hide behind their thesauruses. (Lit crit, anyone?)

Why doesn’t everyone follow Orwell’s rule? Harbaugh has a clean answer: If you’re a writer of moderate ability, you can’t make yourself look good using ordinary words. So you hide behind pompous language, demonstrating at least that you know more words than the average slob. In contrast, a great writer can sound brilliant in monosyllables – and those who can, do.