Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Contretemps over Newspaper Vocabulary

The "Letters to the Editor" section of the Los Angeles Times has featured some heated discussion about what kind of vocabulary is suitable for printing in a newspaper. And no, this doesn't have anything to do with the "seven dirty words" famously satirized by the late lamented George Carlin. Instead, it's about some moderately challenging vocab items that you might expect to find on a Visual Thesaurus word list.

It all started with a June 8 profile of director M. Night Shyamalan by L.A. Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz. The piece included these sentences:

"Shyamalan's new movie, 'The Happening,' [is] a phantasmagoria of paranoia."
"His business offices and editing suite are set in a colonial stone home on this bucolic spread of Pennsylvania land."
"Everything about Shyamalan the person appears pristine, precise, aesthetic."
"A vague soupçon of chagrin hangs over him."
" He's been through a complete cycle of media glorification and diminution, and emerged chastened but certainly not bowed."
"Schadenfreude careened around the studios like the metal ball in a pinball machine."
"The media contretemps was stressful and upsetting, but he tries to be stoic about the vicissitudes of Hollywood fame."

The following week, a letter from L.A. Times reader Grant Nemirow appeared:

I loved Rachel Abramowitz's profile of M. Night Shyamalan. However, I have a great deal of concern about the future of newspapers and her article made me ask, "How many Los Angeles residents under 40 (a demographic newspapers must keep and expand if they are to remain in business) know the meaning of the following words in this one article: phantasmagoria, bucolic, aesthetic, soupçon, diminution, schadenfreude, contretemps and vicissitudes?
The L.A. Times needs to speak to all the residents of Los Angeles. I ask that its writers go out in the real world. Ask people if they know what these words mean. They don't.

Backlash to Nemirow's letter from other readers was fast and furious. Here's a selection of responses printed by the Times:

So I'm reading the June 15 Calendar, you know, the letters part, and there's this awesome letter from Grant Nemirow, and he says The Times should wise up and, like, stop with the big words, because nobody under 40 knows what they mean. To which I say, dude, you are so right on!
But The Times should do more, like tossing that "sentence" and "paragraph" stuff. Nobody writes like that anymore. Just put everything in text message format, then you'll have a newspaper that's relevant -- uh, scratch that, I mean hot.
(Bonnie Sloane)

As a 26-year-old reader born and bred in Los Angeles, I would like to respond to Grant Nemirow's letter in which he accuses readers like me of not knowing a host of useful words.
Anyone who graduated from an English-speaking high school without knowing such basic words as "aesthetic" and "diminution" ("diminutive," anyone?) ought to be ashamed of him or herself. The situation is easily remedied, even without recourse to a hard-bound dictionary: online dictionaries abound. One need only spend a moment at www.dictionary.com, and no one need know he or she was ever so ignorant as Mr. Nemirow assumes we all are.
(Abigail Kessler)

As a simple woman of simple words, I have essayed, oh, dear, I mean tried to edit Abramowitz's piece for us common folk:
"Shyamalan's new movie, 'The Happening,' a totally trippy rush of paranoia . . . ." "His business offices and editing suite are set in a colonial stone home on this Beverly Hillbillies spread of Pennsylvania land." "Everything about Shyamalan the person appears pristine, precise, totally nerd." "He's been through a complete cycle of media glorification and trashin' . . . ." "Being all like 'cool!' because someone else screwed up careened around the studios like the metal ball in a pinball machine." "The media dis was stressful and upsetting, but he tries to be stoic about the bummers of Hollywood fame."
As if!
(Mary Sojourner)

In the vast "phantasmagoria" of letters sent to The Times over the years, Grant Nemirow's message chiding Rachel Abramowitz for her extensive and interesting vocabulary must rank as an "aesthetic" "contretemps" of the highest order. If the writer had even a "soupçon" of sense, he'd have scolded our current education system for its "diminution" of quality, not The Times for standing firm on the side of literacy.
If today's students are ever going to escape the "vicissitudes" of the more "bucolic" careers and function in the big city, they'd do well to note any unfamiliar words in Times articles and then open their dictionaries to expand their knowledge of our glorious language.
(Preston Neal Jones)

The readers who objected to Nemirow's letter would probably love the piece we ran last month from Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner on "Big Words." Simon and Julia, professional copywriters, dismantle the old maxim that writers should eschew "big words" for fear of alienating readers. "Ultimately, the fear of big words is unwarranted, because people actually love the audacious use of language," Simon and Julia wrote. "The world is hungry for vivid, bracing, thoughtful, sincere communication."

What do you think? Should newspaper writers keep it simple and avoid using words that might be unfamiliar to their audience? Or should readers be challenged to expand the horizons of their vocabulary?

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 25th 2008, 4:15 AM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Santa Clara, CA)
If the word fits, use it. If the fit is precise, elegant and thought-provoking, so much the better. If I say what I mean as exactly as I can, you have a much better chance of understanding what I said and deciding whether you actually agree or disagree with me and to what extent.

As an aside, I could only with difficulty understand the "translated" words. There is a cultural difference lurking here. Slang is interesting, often arresting and mostly fleeting. The cycle time between generations of slang is so fast, something cute can become insulting between an 11 year old and their elders of 15.

While language lives and grows and changes, being intelligible to a large part of society is still valuable. I fear a loss of valuing society as a whole in favor of the smaller groupings of those who share my station and views. How sad.
Wednesday June 25th 2008, 4:42 AM
Comment by: Marjorie R.
In the newsroom my colleagues and I were continually plagued by application of The Fog Index, which attempted to limit stories to no more than 14 inches and lead sentences to no more than nine words, all of them readily understandable to the "average" fourth grader who hadn't read Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter books, or Bridge to Terebithia, or any of countless other stories told in language too urgently delicious to interrupt for dictionary definitions. We believed—I still believe—it is possible to write in such a way that unfamiliar words might reveal their meanings in context, stretching the reader's vocabulary, critical understanding, and mental powers.

Language, our most effective means of communication, is far too important to dilute for any reason, least of all the lofty suspicion that our readers are incapable of comprehension. As writers, it is our job to speak to our readers as intelligent equals; to raise the literacy bar, not lower it.

Wednesday June 25th 2008, 11:48 AM
Comment by: Bill G.
I liked her exotic words to describe an unusual person; form follows function and so form and function are one.
PS. What does paranoia mean?

Wednesday June 25th 2008, 1:43 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
The funniest part of this is that Nemirow apparently prefers the "dumbing down" of language (and those who use it) while the wittier critics are aghast at such things. Young people may "talk" with their thumbs and use code language much of the time, but that emphatically does mean they are too ignorant to understand most of the words they come upon. And indeed, in this time of online dictionaries, many young people know words with a precision that is the envy of my generation. I had to go find a printed dictionary.

Bravo to any newspaper that permits a writer to use quality language.
Wednesday June 25th 2008, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I think it can be boiled down to branding.

There's the brand of the newspaper, which informs the public at large what type of paper it is, what it's going to cover, and how it's going to cover topics. Then there's the brand of the author within the newspaper. For general news copy writers, I would presume they should be conforming to some kind of tone-of-voice standard that delivers on the brand promise of said newspaper.

But for columnists and other name-brand authors within a paper, they have an opportunity to create a sub-brand within the paper. This sub-brand will attract (and probably repel) a certain segment of the newspaper's readership based on the style and/or substance of that author's personal brand of communication style.

Within this context, it seems to me that the issue at hand is that Rachel Abramowitz might very well be writing in the style of a name-brand author when in fact she's a staff writer.

I can only assume that the editor of the paper would be working to ensure that all staff writers adhere to a consistent voice so that readers of the paper aren't forced to adapt to varying writing styles and tones throughout the general news sections of the paper.

From this perspective, I see one of three scenarios at play:

- Rachel overreached stylistically as a staff writer.
- The paper has a wide enough tonal aperture to accept these kinds of flourishes within the staff writer context.
- Because it's a profile piece and not true news reporting, staff writers can get more creative due to the nature of the topic.

Or... maybe this is all a strategic ploy to get more people engaged in the paper in an effort to improve their economic outlook!
Wednesday June 25th 2008, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I have no disagreement with using the most apt vocabulary in writing a general piece, but I do become weary when I read something that flaunts the author's knowledge of vocabulary. If a feature writer has already used a number of multi-syllabic, foreign, and fanciful terms in an article, it is time to back off.
Thursday June 26th 2008, 12:58 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
For a quick plot summary or 1-5 star rating reviews, amazon.com or the short magazine guides offer--and people should expect to read in them--direct, unadorned, less subtle discourse. Germanic monosyllabic root words get the job done (farm instead of bucolic), but using that level of vocabulary is different from a call for translating the Latin/Norman "harder" words into slang. The opposite of the 7 nuanced words is not necessarily to dumb down but to know what level of diction or tone to expect in certain places for a certain readership, as some responders also alluded.

A large daily newspaper ought to be able to "please/delight" and "teach" (a la Horace)at the same time. So I vote for Ms. Abramowitz's 7 words to stay. I go to a big newspaper, when I do, for an opinion page's depth, flavor, angle, and the joy of form echoing content.

A small part of me wants to quarrel, however, with an over-hasty insistence, like Marjorie R's claim that "Language, our most effective means of communication, is far too important to dilute for any reason, least of all the lofty suspicion that our readers are incapable of comprehension." I agree with her on all but the "for any reason" part.

I teach at the university level, and I work closely with a range of people in a church. The mentally challenged served in churches and schools, some seniors who have lost concentration powers, and others (even like me on a tired day) deserve a place in a newspaper to get the simple summary too--a little like comfort food. I don't know the L.A. Times well enough, but some papers have a children's insert that echoes the big news and cultural happenings in simple vocabulary. My highly educated 91 year old mom has for years enjoyed the children's page version of a story, not to mention the simplified maps and word puzzles. A big daily has size enough to accommodate varieties of readership, but in different sections. Doing so ought, interestingly, to help improve the economic outlook of newspapers, not a bad thing really.
Thursday June 26th 2008, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Kitty S. (Brooklyn, NY)
I must say I was curiouos about why some words were chosen while others escaped. What about "paranoia" "pristine" "chagrin" "chastened" "careened" "stoic"?

Personally, I think it's great to use big words when they fit. But somewhat like Ellen M., I get weary they are used to flaunt the writer's knowledge of vocabulary. More than this, though, I find two contexts for big words to be stultifying: in business writing, when the bigger word is used in an effort to seem more educated; and in scholarly writing, where the big words pile up on each other until they become soporific.

"chastened but not bowed" sounds for all the world like a literary reference. Curious about the source, I googled the expression and found first the LA Times article under discussion here, and then six references to a review of Aswad. Then I tried the simpler "but not bowed" and found 24,600 references. The most often used (based on two google pages) were "beaten but not bowed" and "bloody (or bloodied" but not bowed". What was the original, I wonder. I'm pretty sure there is one, and that writers who use other words are winking and elbowing their readers so that those in the know can congratulate themselves for catching the reference. I remember in high school that we liked to quote to each other and answer, though I couldn't remember the exact words. Here they are: "battered but not dimished" (Willa Cather, My Antonia) and "bloody but unbowed" (William Ernest Henley, Invictus).

(Forgive the odd line break above. Something is weird about this text box: when I try to backspace from the beginning of the line to make "what about" appear on one line, the previous word jumps to the next line. I left it like that.)
Thursday June 26th 2008, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
$100 words threaten some people. I once had to go to a high school and meet with my son and his Advanced Level English teacher. He had written a report on the book, "Watership Down." Teacher started right off saying she knew my son had not written the paper because of the words used in it. She had given him an "F" because of her certainty it was not done by him. She grinned slyly at me and asked, "OK, Darryl, tell me what the word "escarpment" means and expand a bit on what you know about it. Well, he gave her chapter and verse, using examples, synonyms etc. She tried another word, and once more he replied with total command of its meaning and why he chose to use it rather than a more common one. She took her pen, crossed out the "F" and made it an "A" and then apologized to us both. It was early in the year and his work was marked fairly and without question from that point on. He was in 10th grade, now 46 years old with an excellent command of the language, but knows when to tone it down for the intended reader.Know your audience and don't assume anything.
Friday June 27th 2008, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Frankfort, IL)
Communication is a primary, and arguably the only true, reason for the written word. If the purpose of one’s writing is to communicate, then one must select words which can readily be decoded by one’s readers. “Readily” need not mean instantaneously or from memory. “Readily” must be interpreted in the context of the communication, which at a minimum necessarily includes the audience, the time, and the location.

Here are a few combinations of audience, time, and location to consider:
Audience, Time, and Location:
If the writing is intended to make the reader understand or complete a task (e.g. instructions, procedures, an explanation of a process or activity), the reader may not have the temporal luxury of consulting a dictionary or even the mind of someone nearby. In such a case, the use of words that are not immediately, completely, and concisely understood by the reader may subvert the purpose of the text; the reader may give up or complete the task incorrectly. The communication has failed.

Time and Location:
An expository piece such as the L.A. Times article is ideal for words which inhabit the periphery of our passive vocabularies (assuming that those words are used correctly and appropriately), enticing the reader to wonder about a definition, or to consider an unfamiliar use. The information communicated in the piece is not likely to be immediately critical to the safety of the reader, nor likely to require immediate action by the reader; therefore the reader has the opportunity to thoughtfully consider the meanings of challenging words, and certainly find explicit definitions as appropriate.

The description of an exhibit in a museum should not use words that cannot be decoded by anticipated visitors, unless the meanings of those words can be understood in the context of the exhibit and the balance of the description. A museum visitor has no access to a dictionary. If the visitor cannot grasp the meaning of the description, the value of the exhibit is diminished, and the communication has failed.

Audience and Time:
Written instructions for the care of a patient must be easily and instantaneously understandable by the intended care provider so there is no delay in delivering proper care for the patient. Such instructions provided to a registered nurse should be written differently and should contain different language than equivalent instructions provided to a spouse or parent.

To communicate via written language, one must choose words. To communicate wisely via written language, one must choose words wisely. Ms. Abramowitz’s word choices cannot be generally judged to be right or wrong—for some audiences they are appropriate, for others they are inappropriate. She apparently decided that they were appropriate for her intended audience. The challenges for all who communicate are to command a broad collection of words, to judiciously choose the words best suited to encode the message, and to choose only words that can be appropriately decoded by the recipients.
Wednesday August 13th 2008, 11:05 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Though I digress from the main purpose of this Comments Section, I must draw attention to a line from the comment by Marian C.

The line is:

She took her pen, crossed out the "F" and made it an "A" and then apologized to us both.

It is in my opinion that any person who professes to be a teacher and can joyfully discover any wrongdoing in themselves, openly rectify it, and then press onward has won the respect of his/her students. Such an educator demonstrates that learning never ceases and has truly earned the title Teacher.
Indeed, that particular teacher must have the "educator-trait" embedded within her DNA!

Thanks for sharing that recollection, Marian C.
Sunday August 31st 2008, 12:16 AM
Comment by: jocelyn E. (Tasmania Australia)
Of course newspapers should continue to challenge readers with "big" and "different" words which we could find challenging. Sometimes, the context of the article is a big "hint" as to what the phrase and / or word may mean,anyway, isn't it.( This is a response re "Newspaper Vocabulary"--Ben Zimmer and other folk's views.) Let us all continue to learn and devour words just like we did as kids. Our brains can take in and assimilate all forms of knowledge, as long as we are alive.
My lovely bloke said just then " Get a dictionary....and just GET OVER IT ! " with a big grin. I am trying to get him to join up, so his prodgious spelling prowess can be seen. He is too modest. Can someone encourage him? His name is Tony Judd.

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