Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

High-Definition TV: Do Viewers Need Pop-Up Vocab Assistance?

If you were watching "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" on ABC Sunday morning, you saw a high-minded historical discussion of the U.S. Constitution. But you also might have caught an unusual media moment, when Amanpour, responding to Harvard University professor Jill Lepore, commented that Ben Franklin "was amazingly perspicacious when this Constitution was signed." As Amanpour spoke, a graphic popped up on the screen giving a dictionary definition for the word perspicacious.

Matt Schneider of Mediaite took notice and helpfully provided the relevant clip:

Schneider called the use of the vocab graphic "either unintentionally hilarious or merely bizarre." "Were producers worried that the word would fly so far over their audience's head that they needed to intervene as a public service?" he wondered. "Is This Week now like Pop-Up Video with explanatory details and interesting facts popping up to complement what's happening on screen?"

I agree that this one-time use of "pop-up vocab" on the show was peculiar, particularly if you take a look at the verbiage elsewhere in the program. I ran the show transcript through VocabGrabber, and perspicacious was hardly the only SAT-level word used. Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University spoke of lacunas in the Constitution, with women and people of color being elided and "seen as marginalia." Dyson warned of thinking that the current generation "is somehow vulnerable to rebuff of the Constitution" or that "the apotheosis of history finds its resting point in you." Elsewhere Dyson noted that Thomas Jefferson didn't want changes made to the Declaration of Independence, but "redactors prevailed."

Roundtable panelist George Will, no slouch in the vocabulary department, opined that for many Americans "the somewhat promiscuous expansion of government power in recent years raises questions about whether we still have a government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers." Things got downright philosophical when Lepore threw out epistemological, and Dyson referred to a "Hegelian problem." (That went over the head of the ABC transcriber, who rendered it as a "Hagelian problem," perhaps confusing German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel with former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel.)

So why did Amanpour's perspicacious get singled out for pop-up treatment? Perhaps the producers figured viewers' eyes would glaze over at the erudition of the panelists, but the show's host ought to receive special clarification for anyone stymied by her use of a potentially unfamiliar word. Or perhaps this was simply a trial balloon for their pop-up vocab technology, and we'll be seeing more and more of these visual aids on the program in the future.

Would this type of on-screen assistance, if provided more systematically, be a good thing? It would save the folks at home the trouble of pausing the show and running to the dictionary — a quaint idea, in this day and age, I know (though perhaps not implausible for an audience regularly exposed to the likes of George Will). Ideally, of course, definitions would only be served up as requested by the consumer — in the manner of the online New York Times allowing readers to access a reference search by double-clicking on any word in an article. When it comes to TV news broadcasts, one could imagine a day when iPads or other multitouch devices could offer the same type of interactivity.

Until that day, however, "pushing" dictionary definitions on viewers via pop-ups may not be such a wise move. It's distracting, and it could be perceived as condescending. It's especially ironic that the glossed word was perspicacious ("acutely insightful"), as if to say, "If only you were a little more perspicacious, you wouldn't need an extra vocabulary boost!" But that's just my take on it. Let us know in the comments below if you think Pop-Up Vocab is a welcome development or an unnecessary intrusion.

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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 July 5th 2011, 3:13 AM
Comment by: John W.
I'd love it, for it's benefit to my vocabulary, which is the same reason I use vocabulary.com.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 4:10 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
I think those who know would be irritated by it but the rest might appreciate the choice. Shows where scholars battle to use the most complex words might be rescued from alienation. To have the pop-up as an option would be a definite benefit.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 5:07 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
I agree that having it as an option would be preferable, similar to SAP.
I would loved to have been able to DVR all the Firing Line episodes with such a feature. As a teenager, this was a great source of new vocabulary words.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 6:09 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, I fully agree with your implied slant on this topic.
But, yes, aimed at the level of the overwhelming majority of viewers as judged by the general pap offered by broadcast programing that satisfies the advertisers, they need all the help they can get!
It certainly seems a bit patronizing to me.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 7:52 AM
Comment by: Arthur M. (Brentwood, NY)
I think it is great. I do it when I read and come across a "new" word or one that is used in an unfamiliar way. It could be distracting if overused.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If the pop-ups appear automatically, the show risks alienating viewers who feel talked down to and distracting viewers from the point being discussed. You don't want viewers so distracted by the word definition that they miss what the speaker says next. User-initiated pop-ups might work, but I think I'd rather be able to somehow tag a word I wasn't familiar with and look it up after. If I never looked it up, I'd know that it wasn't important to learn that particular word at that moment to understand the speaker's meaning.

There's a lot to be said for multitasking, but when the tasks use the same part of the brain, the result is the tasks aren't as well done.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Joyce S.
I'm a retired English teacher, and knew most of the underlined words, but with one or two of them, I would have appreciated the help.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
It's a great idea. Everyone needs help sometimes, even if we think we know.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 10:42 AM
Comment by: John S.
Understanding the words helps. But I would like to see this technology used to present analyses of what is being said rather than just the vocabulary.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 10:45 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
The best teaching moments are always contextual, and most of what we learn is also contextual. I fail to see why the worry over the popups being distracting, when most news shows now have ticker-tape style "foot-lines" running across the bottom of the screen anyway.

As for people feeling patronized: no matter what you do, you'll never get full approval (if only because so many people just need to criticize), so why not provide the opportunity to learn something to those who are open to it instead of pandering to those who prefer to remain ignorant?
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Karen A.
I think it's an interesting idea and could be helpful, but it must somehow be optional. Perhaps a parallel web broadcast that lists and defines the Big Words?
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Jack E.
Is it possible Christiane has alerted the producer that she was going to use that word? If so, I applaud her, if not I am thrilled to think that someone out there is helping the listener or viewer to understand what is being said. Hooray for the pop-ups!
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 12:01 PM
Comment by: John W.
i think it's ironic for an author on a vocabulary-enhancement website to be slightly arrogant about vocabulary-enhancement feature on television.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 12:21 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I think the pop-ups are a great idea. Disdain for their use reminds me of my formative years (the '60's). Some
people I knew considered it embarrassing to pick up a dictionary and look up a word. The sentiment was so strong, my mom had a standing admonition for them--"It is the dummy that won't use a dictionary". I took her to mean we can always use some help. Additionally, when I do look up a word I know, I am delightfully led to shades of meanings. I love words and learning about them anyway that knowledge is coming. My mom was smart and educated, as are many
viewers of Christian. I fail see the harm.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 12:51 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth M.
I watched the show and when I saw the pop-up, I was initially put off. As I thought about it later (and I found myself thinking about it quite a lot for some reason), I decided it wasn't such a bad idea -- exposure to words and their definitions as they are being used is a wonderful tool -- but I side with the suggestions that this be a feature the viewer can turn on or off. I do wonder who is deciding for us which words to define and which to leave to our own little brains.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 3:00 PM
Comment by: John W.
someday when we have smarter tv's, then that would be a great feature to be able to turn on or off. to the viewer who asks "how did they know she was going to use that word", they didn't. It's a recorded broadcast, and the definitions were added later. Regarding which words they define, and which they don't, i'm not offended by whatever they assume about me-- some definitions is better than none!
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Pop-ups for educational purposes! Yes.
Ice cream pop-ups too.
Commercialization pop-ups...
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
It seems as though I am the black sheep here!
My argument is not against the use of any kind of language help, wherever we can find it.
But my negativism is more in the manner in which I feel TV has an increasingly degrading effect on the social values of a "virtuous" nation--the blatant assault against the safeguards of easy access to programming that is vulgar, pornographic, violent, demeaning of women, law-enforcement agencies, and ridicule of formerly respected societal "norms" that provide for a more stable government and society.
Since it is in the name of "free speech", shouldn't we take closer notice of its effect on children, at the very least?
I expect a storm of response to my statement, but at least understand my meaning, even though I may appear as too high-minded, unrealistic, and arrogant.
How would some of you put my thoughts into words?
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Philadelphia, PA)
Didn't anybody notice in the clip that Christianne doesn't seem to know what perspicacious means? She seems to have used it because Jill Lepore had used it (accurately)in her book - but then Christianne seems to suggest that Franklin wasn't at all sure of himself - see her gesturing and moving from side to side - as she puts herself in Franklin's place - implying lack of confidence in the vision, not clear insight.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 4:25 PM
Comment by: Juergen L.
Note to programmers: 
Make dictionary definition pop-up for smart TV.
Allow user to set reading level or level of education.
Allow user to select dictionary to be used.
Skip pronunciation guide.
Let user select duration of on-screen pop-up in seconds, to allow s-l-o-w readers enough time to finish reading before next definition pops up.

Oh, never mind, I'd much rather read the transcript on the iPod, with the aid of my dictionary app.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
I agree with those who said OPTIONAL pop-up vocab would be their first choice. If we can have optional closed captioning for the hard of hearing—right now—why not the same for vocab? Even though it would occasionally come in handy, on the whole I think I would find it distracting. But I am an adult native speaker of English. How I would have loved it as a young person. And what about all those non-native speakers who are fairly proficient in English but still have a way to go?
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 6:21 PM
Comment by: John W.
Roger Dee, the insult to viewers is when they don't use any big words. Which is how tv has helped dumb down Anerica over the past few decades. Using big words does not insult my intelligence. Vocabulary tips on tv is a laudable effort to reverse dumbness. Thank you CNN.

Wightly, if your vocabulary is so great, why are you on vocabulary.com?

I'm a native English speaker with a college education too, but I appreciate help with advanced vocabulary, especially if I have not seen some of these words since college.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 6:41 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
John W.
I'm glad you agree about the "dumbing down" part!
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I'm all for it. I don't think it would be a distraction for those who know the definition but would help those who don't to keep up with the gist of the conversation
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 11:10 PM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
John W., I DO have a great vocabulary—BIG too—over 4lbs, all thumb indexed, with a lovely red cloth cover. And I know a lot of the words in it. Still, I think the pop-up vocab is a great idea—if only it could be optional. I am terrible at multitasking; I hate the crawl at the bottom of the screen; so for ME, personally, pop-ups would be extra clutter. For ME, the ideas and the body language are enough to focus on. If a word is still bugging me at the break, I can look it up in my 'great vocabulary'.
Tuesday July 5th 2011, 11:32 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
I cannot figure out what Roger Dee's point is in the context of this article. Of course, it's popular to decry "dumbing down" (in fact, it's been popular for several centuries), but does he feel that the article is "for" or "against" dumbing down? I mean, does he consider the pop-up idea a force for good or evil? Perhaps this thread is just a soapbox...
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 2:21 AM
Comment by: John W.
In the future, maybe TVs will let us bookmark spots for later study. Or, hit a button on your remote to pause, open transcript of last 20 seconds, click or say any word, and read/hear the definition. Then pop back into the show 5 seconds before the word is uttered.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 4:21 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
For Sue B. -- Thanks for trying to "figure out" what I am trying to say.
I guess I do have a tendency to think too "deeply"--looking for "the thing behind the thing".
Here, more simply put: I am in favor of any effort to expand our ability in language skills.
I DO have a soapbox and it is the harmful effect of much of the media content directed at the consumer.
As to "thinking deeply", it is simply a matter of trying to understand the nature of our world and our relationship to one another.
It takes a smarter man than me to discern the motives of others.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
What dictionary did this definition actually come from? I've surveyed the ones I have handy and I don't find that wording anywhere. Is this, perhaps, a great product placement opportunity for dictionary publishers?
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 8:47 AM
Comment by: David H.
Commercialization seems to have created the pop-up. It's great to see it used for something educational. Perhaps we can create something like public service announcements within the context of TV shows. Can you imagine the use of serious vocabulary in non-news shows, or better yet, how about overdubbing it in like the old Godzilla flix?
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Thanks, Roger Dee, for your response. "Thinking too deeply" wasn't really my stumbling block in trying to understand your first post. Usually, I find clear thinking harder to come by than deep.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 1:28 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Orin: I also tried to figure out which dictionary was used for the definition and came up empty. It's a bit peculiar, in that it leads off with "having keen vision," the historical meaning of perspicacious (from Latin perspicere "to look through"). Random House uses that for the second sense of the word but marks it as archaic. So it looks like it might have been cobbled together from a couple of different dictionary entries.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I expect you're right, and they avoid plagiarism (or having to pay for and credit usage) by taking a bit from here and a bit from there. I expect many publishers, however, would be happy to have an announcement in the credits, where along the lines of "Ms. Amanpour's wardrobe provided by . . ." we see "Word definitions provided by . . ."
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 5:58 PM
Comment by: John W.
Imho, Tv producers have good reason to worry about big words flying over the heads of Americans.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 8:29 PM
Comment by: treybrah (TX)
I feel that this pop up thing will be great for me, because just as I'm on this website trying to increase my vocabulary the pop-up deal will further help me.
Sunday July 10th 2011, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
If a conversation is going to pivot on a term that might not be in regular rotation for a show's target audience, then it's probably a good service to its patrons.

I applaud the producers for trying a new approach to on-demand comprehension. Their audience will inform the show's producers soon enough whether it was a considerate or condescending service.
Monday July 11th 2011, 3:31 PM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
The graphic comes up prior to Amanpour voicing the word so it would appear to be a pre-planned use of the word that was discussed beforehand with the producer. Perhaps they were trying it out to gauge the reaction to it and plan to use it in the future. I wonder if the reason for the use of it is to educate their viewers or if there is a more psychological purpose to it?
Sunday July 17th 2011, 12:26 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I support the pop-up-wording tactics entirely.
Persons like me, whose native language is not English,these type of repeated vocabulary showed up always boost up the memory for recognizing the word correctly at the right time. More this tactics will be in practice, the better we will be equipped in using the word appropriately.
More educated we will be in this way, better the objective will be attained in the society. Education/knowledge/information is always the key to all success. To know the correct word meaning instantaneously during a news update is an opportunity for progressing forward. That's my opinion.
Monday July 18th 2011, 4:00 PM
Comment by: John W.
Brindle, I suspect the broadcast was recorded, and the popups added after. So the producers probably reviewed the tape and decided what words to define.
Tuesday March 13th 2012, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Brittney Callens
I agree with you. BUT HOWEVER I have to came across a word that i didnt know. I remember how I use to but overwhelmed at the word. But now I no the word by heart.

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