Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Case for the Ten Dollar Word

Double-click a word in the online edition of the New York Times and it triggers the site’s splendid online dictionary. But did you know that, while it supplies you with a definition for the word in question, it also tallies the query you made? Every half year, the good folks at the Times look at all the tallied words and let readers know which words they’ve been looking up most. Not only that, it calculates how many words get looked up per article, and with that, which words and articles were the most problematic for readers.

For instance, in the most recent of these calculations, the word that had gotten the most look-ups in a single article was panegyric. (Which is a formal public speech. It seems important to share that with you, because if you double-click a word here at January Magazine, nothing will happen beyond wear and tear to your fingers or your mouse.) Followed by immiscible (“Not forming a homogeneous mixture when added together”) and Manichaean (“an adherent of the dualistic religious system of Manes, a combination of gnostic christianity, buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and various other elements, with a basic doctrine of a conflict between light and dark, matter being regarded as dark and evil”). To be honest, all three of those words sent me hunting for my Funk and Wagnalls but which, upon consideration, might have to do with the fact that the U.S. is heading toward a big political year. According to Philip B. Corbett, writing in the “After Deadline” column in The New York Times’ blog, these lists do seem to reflect some kind of word trend, even if they’re difficult to spot:
This year’s list includes a number of head-scratching favorites that also made the lists in 2010 and 2009: inchoate, opprobrium and hubris are apparently as troublesome as ever, even to our well-read audience. On the other hand, such past standbys as solipsistic, peripatetic and antediluvian are missing. Did Times readers finally learn them? Did we give up and stop using them? Or did the readers give up and just turn to another story?
But what about good old simplicity? Corbett makes an argument for the use of the occasional ten dollar word:
As always, we should remember that our readers are harried and generally turn to us for news, not SAT prep. They don’t carry dictionaries on the subway and don’t necessarily want to double-click online just because a writer couldn’t resist a 50-cent flourish. Be judicious, and if possible offer deft context that will help readers understand less familiar words.

That said, we don’t want to water down our prose or sound like everyone else. Our readers are smart and expect writing that’s sophisticated, even challenging. Many Times readers probably delight in the occasional crepuscular, anomie or insouciance.
Hardly as feckless as some readers might have feared. You can see the full list here.


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