The "Letters to the Editor" section of the Los Angeles Times has featured some heated discussion about what kind of vocabulary is suitable for printing in a newspaper. And no, this doesn't have anything to do with the "seven dirty words" famously satirized by the late lamented George Carlin. Instead, it's about some moderately challenging vocab items that you might expect to find on a Visual Thesaurus word list.
It all started with a June 8 profile of director M. Night Shyamalan by L.A. Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz. The piece included these sentences:
"Shyamalan's new movie, 'The Happening,' [is] a phantasmagoria of paranoia."
"His business offices and editing suite are set in a colonial stone home on this bucolic spread of Pennsylvania land."
"Everything about Shyamalan the person appears pristine, precise, aesthetic."
"A vague soupçon of chagrin hangs over him."
" He's been through a complete cycle of media glorification and diminution, and emerged chastened but certainly not bowed."
"Schadenfreude careened around the studios like the metal ball in a pinball machine."
"The media contretemps was stressful and upsetting, but he tries to be stoic about the vicissitudes of Hollywood fame."
The following week, a letter from L.A. Times reader Grant Nemirow appeared:
I loved Rachel Abramowitz's profile of M. Night Shyamalan. However, I have a great deal of concern about the future of newspapers and her article made me ask, "How many Los Angeles residents under 40 (a demographic newspapers must keep and expand if they are to remain in business) know the meaning of the following words in this one article: phantasmagoria, bucolic, aesthetic, soupçon, diminution, schadenfreude, contretemps and vicissitudes?
The L.A. Times needs to speak to all the residents of Los Angeles. I ask that its writers go out in the real world. Ask people if they know what these words mean. They don't.
So I'm reading the June 15 Calendar, you know, the letters part, and there's this awesome letter from Grant Nemirow, and he says The Times should wise up and, like, stop with the big words, because nobody under 40 knows what they mean. To which I say, dude, you are so right on!
But The Times should do more, like tossing that "sentence" and "paragraph" stuff. Nobody writes like that anymore. Just put everything in text message format, then you'll have a newspaper that's relevant -- uh, scratch that, I mean hot.
As a 26-year-old reader born and bred in Los Angeles, I would like to respond to Grant Nemirow's letter in which he accuses readers like me of not knowing a host of useful words.
Anyone who graduated from an English-speaking high school without knowing such basic words as "aesthetic" and "diminution" ("diminutive," anyone?) ought to be ashamed of him or herself. The situation is easily remedied, even without recourse to a hard-bound dictionary: online dictionaries abound. One need only spend a moment at www.dictionary.com, and no one need know he or she was ever so ignorant as Mr. Nemirow assumes we all are.
As a simple woman of simple words, I have essayed, oh, dear, I mean tried to edit Abramowitz's piece for us common folk:
"Shyamalan's new movie, 'The Happening,' a totally trippy rush of paranoia . . . ." "His business offices and editing suite are set in a colonial stone home on this Beverly Hillbillies spread of Pennsylvania land." "Everything about Shyamalan the person appears pristine, precise, totally nerd." "He's been through a complete cycle of media glorification and trashin' . . . ." "Being all like 'cool!' because someone else screwed up careened around the studios like the metal ball in a pinball machine." "The media dis was stressful and upsetting, but he tries to be stoic about the bummers of Hollywood fame."
In the vast "phantasmagoria" of letters sent to The Times over the years, Grant Nemirow's message chiding Rachel Abramowitz for her extensive and interesting vocabulary must rank as an "aesthetic" "contretemps" of the highest order. If the writer had even a "soupçon" of sense, he'd have scolded our current education system for its "diminution" of quality, not The Times for standing firm on the side of literacy.
If today's students are ever going to escape the "vicissitudes" of the more "bucolic" careers and function in the big city, they'd do well to note any unfamiliar words in Times articles and then open their dictionaries to expand their knowledge of our glorious language.
(Preston Neal Jones)
The readers who objected to Nemirow's letter would probably love the piece we ran last month from Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner on "Big Words." Simon and Julia, professional copywriters, dismantle the old maxim that writers should eschew "big words" for fear of alienating readers. "Ultimately, the fear of big words is unwarranted, because people actually love the audacious use of language," Simon and Julia wrote. "The world is hungry for vivid, bracing, thoughtful, sincere communication."
What do you think? Should newspaper writers keep it simple and avoid using words that might be unfamiliar to their audience? Or should readers be challenged to expand the horizons of their vocabulary?
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 other articles by Ben Zimmer