11 words smart people use in casual conversation

In your last casual chat with a coworker, you were left thinking, “Wow, I wish I could speak like that,” or even, “How on Earth does she even know so many intelligent words?!” Some of us are even self-professed word nerds and yet still walk away from a conversation wondering how to up our game to match our fellow intellectuals.

You could go out and buy one of those word-of-the-day calendars, or tell yourself you’ll look up the next word you see that you don’t know, but let’s be real. No one has time for that. And those words may not even be ones you can use on the regular.

So, here’s a list of 11 words that you can slip into casual conversation and instantly sound smarter.


It’s a word that sounds smart but actually means someone was careless. You can use this word to describe an action someone has taken that was sloppy, rushed, or terribly done. Here’s an example for your next conversation at work:

“Joe performed a perfunctory review before he sent off our latest presentation to the client.”


Even the sound of this word indicates its meaning. Vitriol is when feedback is just horrendous, often seen as cruel and bitter criticism. Vitriol used to mean sulfuric acid in an ancient language, so imagine how harsh criticism must be to qualify for this descriptor. Here’s an example you could use in conversation:

“Sarah’s markups on her intern’s presentation were pure vitriol.”

Quid pro quo

Ah, Latin. Pretentious? Maybe. Will it show how smart you are. You betcha! This phrase precisely translated means “something for something.” In other words, it means exchanging one thing for another.

When you do a favor for someone, the quid pro quo would be expecting them to return the favor in the near future. Here’s an example:

“The quid pro quo for me staying late last Friday to finish off the report I wrote with John would be him staying late next Friday to finalize any client changes.”

Fait accompli

Not as pretentious as Latin, but this phrase is French. In a past life, I had a technical director I worked with quite often and he would bust this phrase out in meetings. I always thought, “Wait, what does that mean?” He was a very smart man, but it’s the use of these smart words and phrases that helped cement that belief. 

This phrase means something that is complete before anyone has a say in the outcome. You can replace the common words “done deal” with fait accompli in most cases. Here’s an example of how you can slip this phrase into a casual conversation:

“When Sarah breached confidentiality at work, her firing was fait accompli.”


Here’s another French word that’s made its way into English. You’ll have no trouble using it in your next conversation because, really, we’re all feeling it this year. Ennui is that feeling of dissatisfaction, boredom and frustration you get from lack of excitement or things to do. Here’s an example for you:

“Heading into the second year of working from home, with no international trips planned, and the sense of ennui is real.”


It can feel like the word “offense” is overused these days, and rightfully so, there are a lot of things we can be offended by. However, we can jazz up our conversations of recent events by replacing “offense” with “umbrage.” It means the same thing but sounds way more dignified.

The origin of the word is casting a shadow, so literally throwing shade. Here’s how to use the word:

“Did you see what that politician said last night?! I take umbrage at his remarks.”


You may have heard this word thrown around more often in casual conversation than the other words, but it’s still not a common choice. Ubiquitous means something that is literally everywhere. If something is ubiquitous, then everybody knows about it. Here’s how you might slip it into your next networking coffee chat:

“Remember when we used to need our laptops to check out an email? Before the iPhone was ubiquitous?”


Sycophant is the word smart people use to call someone a suck-up. It’s when someone acts a certain way around another (usually in power) in order to get their way. Your colleague is a sycophant when their personality changes and they’re sweet as pie to your CEO, but disgruntled around everyone else. Here’s how you might use it:

“Whenever our manager is around, Jamie is such a sycophant. I can’t handle it.”


Smart people use smart words when they are insulting someone else’s intelligence. As a bonus, it means the other person might not catch on to the insult. Obtuse means that someone is stupid, dense or very slow to understand things. Here’s an example for your next chat:

“I tried to explain my findings to Elijah, but he’s too obtuse to comprehend the technical details.”


Intelligent folk will use this word instead of calling someone a “people person” or simply an extrovert. Someone who’s gregarious loves company enjoys having many people around and is a social butterfly. Here’s how you could use the word to describe someone:

“Anthony effortlessly throws the best dinner parties with the coolest people. He’s probably the most gregarious guy I know.”


If something is draconian it’s super harsh or severe. Most of the time it refers to laws or regulations being extreme. The word comes from “Draco” who was an ancient Greek legislator known for his severe laws.

Maybe a bit extreme, but sometimes there’s a cause in conversation to use the word. Here’s an example:

“Did you see the latest budget? Draconian cuts were made to social services.”