Blog Excerpts

Most Looked-Up Words in the Times, 2011

As it has done for the past couple of years, the New York Times analytics department has kept track of which words readers of the Times website click on the most to look up definitions. At the top of the leaderboard this year are such stumpers as panegyric, immiscible, and Manichean. How well do you know the thorniest Times vocab?

On the "After Deadline" blog, New York Times style and usage guru Philip Corbett presented the findings, based on most lookups from January 1 to July 14, 2011. Readers can click through on any word in an article to summon up a dictionary definition. The top words are ranked according to number of lookups per article. Here are the top 50 finishers:

Rank Rank (total
Word Reader
per article
2467alacrity34211 31
4052 blasphemy4063512

The avuncular (#16) Corbett writes:

The good news is that Times writers don't feel the need to use the words panegyric, immiscible or Manichaean very often. That's fortunate because the bad news is, when we do use them, a lot of readers don't know what we're talking about. ...

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 crepuscularanomie or insouciance.

Over on the Nieman Journalism Lab, Megan Garber is less sanguine (#43):

Though journalism, as an institution, isn't especially renowned for its sunny outlook on the world, it's still remarkable how pessimistic and generally morose (hubrisfecklessdyspeptic!) the looked-up words tend to be. While they're nothing, of course, like a representative sample of all the words used in the Times — they don't account for NYT blog posts, for one thing, but mostly they represent only the words that have confused people and/or sparked their interest enough to lead to a click — the negativity here is noteworthy nonetheless. If a newspaper is a cultural product, a nation talking to itself and all that, then the preponderance of profligacy and hauteur and duplicity and blasphemy on the list doesn't bode terribly well for our collective conversation. If some future civilization were to come across the Times' list and assume it's representative of The Times We Live In, they'd probably feel sorry for us. Or, you know, schadenfreudically avuncular.

What do you think of the Times Terrible 50? Does the list make you feel ebullient (#48) or dyspeptic (#20)? Only a vocab dilettante (#26) would find the exercise risible (#8) or perfunctory (#19). You can check out the 2009 list here and the 2010 list here.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 10th 2011, 12:59 AM
Comment by: Ericka W. (Pasadena, CA)
i just looked up and thesaurus'ed every word. lol.
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
Okay, so I couldn't resist. I looked up panegyric in an old etymological dictionary (Ernest Weekley, Dover Press, 1967) simply because I was interested in the Latin roots. It gave me a description that was very different from the VT definition. The Weekley version was "general assembly or assembly." Where is the connection to the VT "eulogy" or "public praise?" Does anyone know? I'm definitely not a Latin scholar.
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 12:42 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Article of this accumulated words list is praiseworthy.
Not everyone who reads newspaper is a word lover person, but turning newspaper pages to get information/news around anyone is a natural instinct for many.
The point is, these words on repeated look up clarifies the meaning better for everyone. I personally feel helpless when I see uncommon words in the news article. Though I've came across each of these words several times in my life (I'm a news paper lover), yet at the right time I can not recall the meaning. That's my shortcoming. And I can not carry the dictionary all the time either.
Time to time if these type of words usage history is documented, I guarantee it will improve language usage for common people. SAT test preparation is not the only goal, but reading, writing and speaking using good common words is an objective even for common people.Because by that time, uncommon words turned to very common words.
Thank you again for the article.
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 1:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Paula: The Online Etymology Dictionary is helpful. In Greek, panegyris meant "public assembly," and that was extended to panegyrikos (logos) "(a speech) given in a public assembly," eventually taking on the "public eulogy" meaning (borrowed into Latin as panegyricus).
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 2:57 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I love the effort that was made by the NYTimes.
I do the same thing as I read a "higher level" magazine such as the New Yorker.
Every word that is unusual to me I mark and later copy into a list for study. In most cases I will have a list of 10 or 20 words each week.
Thursday August 11th 2011, 4:53 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom)
I'm sure I'm not the first to ask for a short one sentence definition of the word to be input alongside it as I simply don't have time to look up all the word definitions!
Mike Riyadh
Thursday August 11th 2011, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm another one of those who keeps a word list. I love coming across words unknown to me, and learning to use them. I think I must have been raised by a dictionery sometimes! LOL

Thanks to that, and to my experience with VT already, I only had trouble near the top of the list. I did know panegyric (though spelling it is not always successful!)

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