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.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He 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 other articles by Ben Zimmer