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:
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 crepuscular, anomie 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 (hubris! feckless! dyspeptic!) 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.