Papa and the paucity of words

Lingually Challenged

Hey, what's a little 'paronomasia' between writer and reader?

By Michael M. Spear

Many of us who began reporting in the 1960s probably had hidden somewhere in the warrens of our minds the idea that we might burgeon into Ernest Hemingways. We followed Papa's penchant for the short sentence and the short word. We sought grace under pressure. We took pleasure in parodying him.

But this Hemingway influence may have done more in the 20th century to stunt vocabulary growth among journalists than a whole truckload of truculent editors. Develop a vocabulary? Why? Newspapers never encouraged it.

What reporter, after using a word a bit above the level of a high school dropouts, has not heard an editor exclaim with a scowl: "What is this word?" Or, "Who do you think you are writing for, anyway? We're trying to communicate here." I used to wonder: With whom?

I'm not advocating that journalists go into feeding frenzies over words, then produce pompous sentences filled with esoteric words. But if writers have an interest in words, even if they work for newspapers, shouldn't they occasionally slip in a "lugubrious," a "conundrum" a "feckless" an "ignominy" if the sentence calls for it, if it is the appropriate word for the context?

And even if reporters are largely handcuffed, why should copy editors and columnists be held in check? What wordsmith hasn't enjoyed the sound of esoteric words slipping like silk from the mouth of William Buckley, or appreciated the way Maureen Dowd can use "uxorious" in her columns or enjoyed Molly Ivins' playfulness with "retromingent."

Unfortunately, the use of multi-syllable words still often invites attack, or, at least eye-rolling. But if we are influenced by this, aren't we relegating ourselves to a rather barren landscape of expression?

Richard Lederer, a lion among linguistics, tells us that English is the most cheerfully democratic language in the history of mankind. It has 616,500 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. This compares with a vocabulary of about 185,000 words for German, 130,000 for Russian, and 100,000 for French. Yet the average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words, Lederer observes, but actually uses only a fraction of that, the rest being recognition or recall vocabulary.

"The most articulate verbivore interacts with only one-sixth of our English word hoard and actually employs only one-sixth of that," he writes in his introduction to Eugene Ehrlich's book, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate, a sniffish title sure to scare off some.

And what about copy editors? Because they are gatekeepers of the last resort, shouldn't they work even harder to make sure they are not fooled by such words as "fulsome," "quisling," or "sanguine"? Shouldn't they know also such words as "egregious," lubricious," or "scrofulous"? -- especially if one of these words appears during the heat of "read-and-dump" deadlines, when it is no time to scurry to a dictionary?

It was while thinking about this during a recent sabbatical that I began to note words that appeared in such publications as Editor & Publisher, Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Harper's, RollingStone, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch.I arbitrarily selected words that I ran across more than once. There were words that I thought future copy editors should know. I suspected they would be challenging to students and journalists generally. And some, I readily confess, were challenging to me.

I came up with a list of 100 words for my copy editing students. When I gave the class of 16 what I've labeled the "Journalists' Vocabulary Challenge," I soon began to hear murmurs of frustration and alarm. These are bright students. The Scholastic Aptitude Test scores they bring to college average 1350. Early on, one of the bolder students exclaimed, "My God I've never seen some of these words." There was a quick agreement around the class. Taking the cue, I asked that they put an "x" in the margin by each word that they had never seen.

Here is what I found. The scores ranged from a low of 32 missed to a high of 58. Fifteen of the 16 students indicated that they had never seen the word "eleemosynary" (a surprise to me. A beautiful word, almost a musical score); 12 had never seen the word "oleaginous" (understandable.); 12 had never seen the word "contumacious" (another surprise); 11 had never seen "ratiocination"; 9 had never seen "pusillanimous"; and 8 had never seen "lachrymose."

I see this vocabulary list as a challenge for those who revel in words--journalists, students, anyone who loves words. I asked myself, shouldn't my copy-editing students know these words along with the rules of grammar, Associated Press style and such arcane subjects as sequence of tenses?

So each week during the 14-week semester they have a list of words to look up, fully define and then mold into sentences. I am pleased when occasionally a student comes up and says, "I saw 'disingenuous' yesterday in a book I was reading. I knew what it meant. That was awesome."

I have no idea what journalists, in general think about vocabulary. I do know that a former award-winning White House correspondent took the "Challenge" recently and got 86 percent. The "Challenge" is self-grading, so no embarrassment is involved, and is readily available at /~journalm/door/htm.

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