30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter (But Not Pretentious)

Let these mellifluous words roll off your tongue.

30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter (But Not Pretentious)

Let these mellifluous words roll off your tongue.

Let’s get one thing clear right up front: Just randomly using big words so other people think you’re smart isn’t going to work. As a 2012 Princeton study found, it can have the opposite effect. But don’t let that discourage from actually broadening your vocabulary. Learning a new word here and there—and knowing how to use it effectively—doesn’t just make you appear more intelligent: It will actually make you more intelligent, for real. Recent studies have found a correlation between increasing your vocabulary as an adult and strengthening your brain.

Now, that doesn’t mean memorizing a dozen or so words with six or more syllables will make you the smartest person in your social circle. No, strengthening your vocab is more about having a sincere curiosity about language, and wanting to find new, more creative ways to describe the world around you. To help you on your quest for greater intelligence, here are 30 words that won’t just make you sound smarter, but just might make you smarter. And for more idea on how to build your brain muscle, here are 8 Cutting-Edge Video Games that Will Make You a Smarter Person.

loud, smart word, cacophony

1
Cacophony

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: It doesn’t sound like a put-down, but it kind of is. A “cacophony” is any loud, unpleasant mixture of sounds. It could be musical instruments, howling dogs, car horns, or even people. (And to drown out that noise, try one of these 20 great-sounding headphones you can buy in bulk.)

EXAMPLE: “A bachelor party is happening next door. Hence the cacophony.”

Ghost, date, ennui, smart word

2
Ennui

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: It’s the feeling you get when you’re simultaneously bored and annoyed. You were expecting more, but you got… this? You’re not depressed exactly, but you’d definitely rather be anywhere but here. (If you’re in one of the 50 cities with the worst singles scenes in America, you probably know the feeling.)

EXAMPLE: “How was my date last night? Well, I’ll just say this. At the end, I had a gnawing sense of ennui.”

Secrets, relationships, friends, smart word, aquiver

3
Aquiver

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: You’ve got a serious case of the feels, but you’re not sure how to talk about it without saying “the feels”? Try this tasty word, which means you’re so overcome with emotion that you’re practically trembling.

EXAMPLE: “Am I excited for the new Star Wars sequel? I’m aquiver with excitement!”

Interview, hiring, smart word, glib

4
Glib

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: You can’t put your finger on it, but something about the way that guy is talking sounds completely insincere and douchey. He thinks he has all the solutions, but he’s just blowing smoke up your ass. To learn how to hire someone who’s not so cocky, check out How Savvy Bosses Always Land the Perfect Employee.

EXAMPLE: “I know you think you’re being helpful, but you’re being way too glib.”

Ghost, couple arguing, smart word, umbrage

5
Umbrage

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Can you imagine how much more fun Twitter fights would be if people responded to insults that hurt their feelings with, “Dear sir, I take umbrage to that comment?” Yes, it means “offense” or “annoyance.”

EXAMPLE: “I know you’re just an Internet troll with no sense of right or wrong, but you didn’t have to cause me so much umbrage.”

smart word, non-sequitur

6
Non-sequitur

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: It’s when the subject in a conversation gets changed without warning, usually abruptly. It’s a nice way of saying, “Have you even been listening to me?” Its latin translation, literally: “it does not follow.”

EXAMPLE: “Wait, why did you just bring up astronauts? I thought we were talking about mud races. That was a weird non-sequitur.”

Running, productivity, more time, smart word, vamoose

7
Vamoose

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: It just sounds like something a Looney Tunes character would say—but it’s actually a legitimate word, meaning “to leave hurriedly.” Originally derived from the Spanish word vamos, which means “let’s go,” modern usage takes it up a notch: When it’s time to vamoose, danger is probably imminent.

EXAMPLE: “I don’t know how a mountain lion got in the room either, but we’ll talk about it later. Vamoose, man, vamoose!”

boost your productivity, smart word

8
Ubiquitous

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: You could say “That stuff is everywhere,” and you’d probably be understood. But then you’re missing all the fun of language. A word like “ubiquitous” communicates the same idea, but it’s the deep-dish pizza of vocabulary. You have to eat it with a fork. (Officially, it means: “found everywhere.”)

EXAMPLE: “Oh yeah, I’ve seen plenty of guys with hipster beards. They’re ubiquitous.”

Boss Bully, smart word

9
Nefarious

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Evil is just evil, but when it goes the extra mile into Bond villain territory, that’s when it becomes nefarious.

EXAMPLE: “The way he runs his business, it’s just so… nefarious.”

 

young couple arguing, still single, argument fight, smart word

10
Capricious

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Sure, you could ask your wife or girlfriend why she’s being so moody and unpredictable. Or you take a safer tactic, and use a word that isn’t quite so negatively loaded.

EXAMPLE: “You seem a little capricious tonight, dear, is everything okay?”

Team, leadership, smart word

11
Boondoggle

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: No, we’re not kidding. It’s an actual word, referring to any activity that pretends to be useful but is really just a big waste of your valuable time.

EXAMPLE: “Of all the company meetings we’ve had this year, this was the biggest boondoggle!”

Job candidate, recruiting, interview

12
Sycophant

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Calling somebody a “suck-up” or a “brown-noser” feels so juvenile, like an insult you’d hurl at somebody in high school. You can do better. And unless they know what it means, “sycophant” can even sound like a compliment.

EXAMPLE: “No, you totally deserve that raise. You’re the biggest sycophant in the office.”

music fall asleep faster weird laws, smart word

13
Mellifluous

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: When music hits you right in the feels, it’s hard to explain why you love it so much. Instead of saying “Damn this is good,” try a slightly more expressive word like “mellifluous.” It means a smooth, flowing sound that hits your ears in just the right way.

EXAMPLE: “I can’t stop listening to the new Arcade Fire record. It’s so damn mellifluous.”

smart word

14
Brogue

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Telling a pal “your leather shoes are badass” makes you sound like a frat dude. If you’re going to compliment somebody on his sturdy, rugged-looking footwear, use a word with a sense of history. If it was good enough for Irish workers during the 18th century, it’s good enough for you.

EXAMPLE: “I like your brogues, bro.”

 

Job candidate, recruiting, interview, smart word

15
Perfunctory

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Just by using the word “perfunctory,” you’re being the opposite of perfunctory. (See what we did there?) The only ones who make a perfunctory, halfhearted effort are the ones who aren’t really sure if being called “perfunctory” is a snub but can’t be bothered to look it up.

EXAMPLE: “The interviewer asked all the perfunctory questions. He didn’t seem truly interested.”

couple trying new sex positions, smart word

16
Tryst

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Words like “affair” and “one-night stand” sound so judgy. If you’re having a secret meeting with somebody you shouldn’t be alone with, and it’s possible one or more of you weren’t wearing pants, well my good sir, that’s a tryst.

EXAMPLE: “No, we never officially dated. We just had the occasional tryst.”

Angry boss, first heart attack, smart word

17
Vitriol

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY: It’s also the name for sulfuric acid, which is powerful enough to burn through just about anything. That’s how it works with the emotion as well. If you have vitriol for someone, well, they’re far from your favorite person.

EXAMPLE: “Don’t even bring up that guy’s name. The amount of vitriol I have for that jackass, I can’t even explain.”

headache, smart word

18
Catch-22

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Rarely does such a simple word (or a word and a number) express such a complicated idea. You can thank Joseph Heller for coining the term in his 1962 novel Catch-22. It’s a paradox where there’s no escape: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you ever find yourself in a situation where there are no easy answers and either choice seems seems like a dead end, what you have is an old-fashioned catch-22.

EXAMPLE: “You have to have money to make money. It’s a catch-22.”

bromance listening talking smart word

19
Obtuse

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: If it’s starting to seem like an expanded vocabulary is just an excuse to be more creative with your insults, you might be right. But if you’re so dim and slow-witted that you don’t realize that being called obtuse isn’t adulation, maybe you a little bit deserved it?

EXAMPLE: “Don’t worry, he’s too obtuse to realize we’re talking about him.”

 

Man Stressed at Work, smart word

20
Quagmire

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: We don’t mean the Family Guy character, but a swampy marsh, or any difficult or precarious situation. If you’re stuck in a quagmire, you’re in quite the predicament.

EXAMPLE: “Until he pays off the IRS, Bob’s in one heck of a financial quagmire.”

 

lost, smart word

21
Flummoxed

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: We live in a scary, uncertain world, and it’s easy to feel bewildered or confused. But you can add a little color to your consternation by using a word that sounds like it belongs in a British comedy.

EXAMPLE: “I was following the GPS, I have no idea how we got this lost. I’m flummoxed!”

 

Couple, friends, smart word

22
Cajole

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: When somebody’s pushing for you to do something you’d rather not be doing, you could accuse them of trying to bully or dupe you—what we once called “peer pressure” in high school—or you could hit them with a word that gives them pause. That alone might make them back off.

EXAMPLE: “Nice try, but you’re not going to cajole me into drinking another beer.”

is my relationship doomed couple fighting on couch, smart word

23
Caustic

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: We’ve all been caught in the act of being a jerk for no reason. But who wants to say, “Sorry, I was a jerk for no reason?” Here’s a better way to explain.

EXAMPLE: “No, I didn’t really mean it when I said you would die alone and unloved. I was being caustic.”

Couple, sex, in bed, optimize, smart word

24
Fait Accompli

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: You were gonna lobby for a raise at work but your boss is already planned on giving you one? It’s a fait accompli! Your partner’s been pestering you to do the dishes but they’ve already loaded the washer? Another fait accompli! If there’s a cooler, more French, way of saying “Already done,” we haven’t heard it. (It’s not always a good thing, though—when HR puts a frustrating new policy into effect and only tells you after the fact, that’s a fait accompli, too.)

EXAMPLE: “What’s that, dear? It’s okay if I have an orgasm now? Well, no need. Fait accompli!”

Secrets, relationships, couple, fall, smart word

25
Gregarious

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: A truly great word gives people pause, forcing them to wonder if it really means what they think it is. Gregarious sounds like an endorsement—and it is; it means somebody is sociable and fond of other people’s company—but phonetically it’s a little too close to “gangrene.” They could ask, but that would mean admitting they don’t know what the word means.

EXAMPLE: “You know why I like you? You’re one of the most gregarious people I know.”

Procrastination, productivity, smart word

26
Fastidious

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: A fun word because it changes depending on the context. Used to describe somebody who’s obsessed with the small details and can be very difficult to please, it’s obviously meant as a compliment when you say, “You’re an excellent cook, you must be very fastidious in the kitchen.” Great for the office, but maybe not so much when it’s used in the bedroom.

EXAMPLE: “It’s six hours and you still haven’t had an orgasm? You’re being way too fastidious.”

smart word, crying, emotional

27
Maudlin

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Feeling a little tearfully sentimental? Or choked-up with emotion for no apparent reason? Describe what you’re feeling with a word that manages to have some gravitas (despite it normally being used to diss something as overly sentimental). Ernest Hemingway was never weepy, but he definitely had his (drunk) maudlin moments.

EXAMPLE: “Sorry, reading about all these Neo-Nazi marches just made me maudlin remembering Obama.”

 

shock, panic, smart word

28
Flabbergasted

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: That feeling you get when you read the news every morning, and you’re like, “Is this real? Is that actually happening? This can’t be real life.” That’s you being flabbergasted.

EXAMPLE: “Hell yes I saw Game of Thrones last week. I’m still flabbergasted.”

man refuses to drink, smart word

29
Teetotaler

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: Whether you’re a recovering alcoholic or have never touched a drop, abstaining completely from alcohol qualifies somebody as a teetotaler. Where on earth does it come from? Nobody’s entirely sure. It might have something to do with drinking tea: It first came into fashion during England’s temperance movement of the early 19th century. (Richard Turner, the guy who most likely came up with the word, liked it so much that he put in on his gravestone.)

EXAMPLE: “Are you sure you want to invite him to your bachelor party? He’s a teetotaler.”

Marriage, couple, smart word, empathy

30
Empathy

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DEFINITION ALREADY…: You should really know what this means by now—it might not be the most popular word in 2017, but it’s definitely one we should try using more often. People with even the slightest sensitivity to other people’s feelings might as well have super powers.

EXAMPLE: “I know you think he’s a jerkface because of his political beliefs, but let’s try to have a little empathy, okay?”

Now that you know the words you should be adding to your arsenal, here’s a reminder of what needs to go: 40 Things Men Over 40 Should Never Say.

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