Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Don't Be Eristic, Be Lapidary!

A little while back we reported on a Los Angeles Times reader complaining about difficult vocabulary words like contretemps and phantasmagoria appearing in the newspaper. Other L.A. Times readers (and our own commenters) vehemently disagreed, saying that newspapers should shun the old maxim, "Don't use big words." The New York Times Magazine clearly does not have a "No Big Words" policy, since Sunday's edition featured an article with a favorite word of the late logophile William F. Buckley, Jr.: eristic.

The headline to the article, on the Internet-based practice of "trolling," is a tip-off that the writer Mattathias Schwartz likes to tinker with words: it's entitled "Malwebolence," a fine little blend or portmanteau word. (In this case the blend occurs by sandwiching the word web inside malevolence. See my Language Log post for more examples of "sandwich words" like blawg and ridorkulous.) Towards the end of Schwartz's long article comes this passage:

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying "uncle"?

That probably sent a lot of Magazine readers scurrying to their dictionaries (either electronic ones or the old-fashioned print kind). The VT defines eristic as "given to disputation for its own sake and often employing specious arguments." That is indeed an appropriate adjective to describe "trolls" who pick fights just for the pleasure of getting people riled up online. (As Schwartz explains, this sense of schadenfreude goes by the name "lulz," a variation of "LOL," the now-common abbreviation for "laugh out loud.")

Eristic comes from the Greek word eristikos, derived from the verb erizei "to wrangle" and ultimately from eris "strife." Attentive Word Routes readers may recall from our discussion of the ex-planet Pluto that astronomers recently dubbed a new dwarf planet Eris after the Greek goddess of discord. The Megarians, an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Euclid of Megara, took the Socratic style of logical disputation to outrageous extremes, earning them the nickname "the Eristics." Modern-day trolls aren't exactly the successors to the Megarians — vulgarians, more like.

Still, it's a fair usage of eristic, and one that William F. Buckley would no doubt have relished. As lawyer/blogger (blawger!) Ann Althouse noted, the appearance of eristic in the Magazine article harks back to a 1986 piece by Buckley in the New York Times Book Review, "I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words." Buckley described how his use of eristic in a syndicated column led the Washington Post editorial page editor to include a footnote giving the word's definition. He got a similar footnote treatment from an editor at the Charlotte Observer when he used the word lapidary ("having the elegance and precision associated with inscriptions on monumental stones"). Buckley defended his use of such unusual words by explaining that they are "a part of my working vocabulary, even as a C augmented 11th chord with a raised 9th can be said to be an operative resource of the performing jazz pianist."

Some might find Buckley's verbiage to be less than lapidary. Monumental inscriptions, after all, tend to use simple and forceful vocabulary. (Think Hemingway.) But his point helps to underscore the inanity of the "No Big Words" dictum, skillfully dissected by our columnists Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner not too long ago. When a word works propitiously in one's prose, why avoid it simply because it is off the beaten path? There are limits to this approach, of course, and many readers felt that Buckley crossed that lexical line a bit too often. But it's also what gave his writing such a distinctive voice. We wouldn't expect a Buckleyesque style in a New York Times Magazine feature article, but the occasional sprinkling of words like eristic shouldn't cause too much strife.

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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:

Tuesday August 5th 2008, 7:33 AM
Comment by: marti M. (kansas City, MO)
Years ago My eventual son in law was changing Planes; coming from Turkey to USA for school. His father was/is an Editor for a liberal Turkish Newspaper and so it was natural for him to pick up a newspaper in London for the rest of his journey. It was not a paper especially made for the well educated and was considered an ordinary newspaper.

A few days later I spotted it on the dining room table and began to peruse the paper.It was not long before I was having to get the gist of some words by guessing from the context.Then in short order I needed my large dictionary;I was not offended, but was astounded at the vocabulary being a challenge for me. Also the depth of the writing and its analysis of the issue was uncommon in US Newspapers.(This news was worth the paper it was printed on!)

Frankly there is such an overwhelming disrespect for the reader and dare I add Voter of today...that people are getting so short changed in real information and thinking people who try to explain issues in depth get accused of "Flip-Flopping" or people mentally turn off listening.
They are lazy listeners as well as lazy readers.But that makes it even more imperative that some kind of standard be found somewhere!

The shades and nuances of any subject seem limited in newspapers as that "hold information to the 20 minute limit or the" attention span of the "average" American...and American Voter do a disservice to our society.

I have taught over the last thirty years largely with "adults" over sixteen years preparing them for the GED and a separate group o9
ESL Students.so i have seen broad differences in the way new immigrants approach learning English vs the student born here.

Most of the Young Americans who walk into my classroom could barely write a sentence and believe they have a good vocabulary and tough many times they want to know what a word means they have been too lazy to look it up. Yet the ESL student writes reams of words and meanings and works very hard to learn vocabulary.

Most of the GED students are not slow and score high on entrance tests...but their colorful language is usually limited to short four letter words...Sadly The truth is today the "GED Graduate" actually probably has a better vocabulary then the student who sat through the four high school years.Many are not encouraged to study a "foreign" language or learn English vocabulary beyond a certain level. With my GED students I have been able to enrich their interest in language by teaching where words come from --roots and linguistics..and when they see an ESL student making their own vocabulary notebooks---The GED students actually begin to realize and respect the richness of English.

Standards being maintained do help to raise up our society as a whole plus you provide a teacher a resource to prove the importance of language and vocabulary as a basis of knowledge..Increasing ones vocabulary--knowing or learning a second language improves the mind plus helps prevent "senility"
So while other standards crumble --I think that in this arena..that newspapers can continue and should challenge the readership!
Tuesday August 5th 2008, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I think there is a difference between using big words in writing, vs. using them in everyday conversation. In writing, they can enrich and sharpen the content, and spur the curious to look them up, which in turn enriches their own vocabulary. (I saw and noted the referenced occurrence of 'eristic' in the Times Magazine article, although I was too lazy at the time to look it up... my loss!) In my mind, the best practice when using words in writing that may be unfamiliar to readers is to use them in such a way that the meaning can be at least generally deduced from context. This was the case with the Times article.

On the other hand, using big words in casual conversation is a different ball of wax. It is very easy to come across, even inadvertently, as pretentious or ostentatious, when using words that the listener may not know. This is because, unlike the writer-reader relationship, the listener is not free to stop the speaker, go to a dictionary, and return to the conversation better-informed. Instead, the listener has two choices: Either interrupt and ask what the word means (in which case the listener feels dumb), or to let it go and not ask, but still wonder (in which case the listener still feels dumb). Making another person feel dumb in face-to-face interaction is a quick route to resentment and alienation; not to mention the fact that you may have failed to make yourself understood.

The same principle frequently applies to the question of whether or not to correct another person's grammar: In writing, yes. In conversation, no, unless you are in some type of relationship where teaching is involved and correction would be expected or even appreciated.

Key to these ideas is the phrase "words the reader/listener may not know." It's important to tailor your discourse -- in writing or in conversation -- to the intended audience. 'Eristic' in a Times article is acceptable, even to be encouraged; 'eristic' in a conversation over beers about your obnoxious neigbor probably isn't.
Tuesday August 5th 2008, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Ted W.
I love words. It should come as no surprise that I delight on opening my e-mail each morning in finding a VT word offering which is a complete stranger.

I am also a great admirer of the writer, E. B. White. I find that periodic rereading of Strunk & White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE seems to help me to write more carefully and with greater precision. In thinking about the current thread on the use of the word ERISTIC, I imagine Mr. White and Mr. Buckley each using this word in a presentation to a college audience. White, I believe, might use ERISTIC to describe a particular behavior he had witnessed. As a kindness to his audience, some of whom might wonder to themselves what the word meant, and why was this disciple of clear writing using it, he might well follow his use of the word with additional information about the particular behavior, perhaps even referring to the Greek root of the word.

I see Mr. Buckley, by contrast, using ERISTIC to set himself apart and above his audience. He is using an obscure word in such a way as to say "I am better than the rest of you." and, "I know the meanings of more words than you do, and I am not shy about showing off my superiority."
Tuesday August 5th 2008, 6:23 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Schwartz's article also includes a discussion of "disemvoweling," the practice of removing vowels from trolls' posts to obscure their content. While neither hifalutin nor a portmanteau--it's a neologism, circa 2002, that's pun on "disemboweling"--it's certainly a vivid word that evokes a specifically 21st-century form of torture.
Wednesday August 6th 2008, 1:11 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I will probably differ from Ted W. I loved listening to William F. Buckley. I say probably as Mr. W might well have enjoyed listening to him, too, at least, as I did, on the Dick Cavett TV show way back when talk shows were entertaining.

He would talk about his words, why he used them, how it came to be and the reason for the choice.

And when a big one would happen along, Cavett would glance and him, and slyly he would slip in some clues.

It was wonderful!
Wednesday August 6th 2008, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Talley Sue H. (New York, NY)
I hadn't known "eristic" before--and now that I know it, I think it's terrifically useful, and I'm going to start using it.

I wish I'd been around to watch Messers Buckley and Cavett.

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