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The Glut of Abstruse Perorations at the New York Times

 by Bennett Gordon


Tags: Great Writing, New York Times, Nieman Journalism Lab,

The New York Times’ audience, erudite as they may be, can still be stumped by words like “antediluvian,” “sumptuary,” or “hagiography.” The newspaper of record recently gave reporters a glimpse into which words confuse their readers the most when they gave Nieman Journalism Lab a list of the 50 most looked-up words on their website.

A (rather annoying) feature on NYTimes.com allows readers to look up a word, simply by double clicking the text on their computers. Using data from that function, the paper released an internal memo, gently urging editors to shy away from words like “louche,” which editors managed to use 27 times so far this year.

In the memo, deputy news editor Philip Corbett reminded writers and editors that readers “probably don’t carry an unabridged dictionary along with the newspaper as they take the subway to work. And they don’t expect a news article to pose the same linguistic challenge as Finnegans Wake.”

Source: Nieman Journalism Lab

phil brown
6/24/2009 7:37:53 AM

I'm with Soprano. While there is often a fine line between erudition and obfuscation, writers should not shy away from "fancy" words when their use is contextually appropriate. In reading (as in any other endeavor) we learn only when we are challenged. On the other hand, the NYT tool offers a wonderful opportunity to interact with readers. I don't see any harm in reconsidering overuse of obscure words (e.g., "louche" appearing 27 times in the first five months of this year) or misuse of words with very precise meanings (e.g., "apotheosis", which was cited in Corbett's memo and which to my eye appears to have been used when the writer really meant "epitome").


soprano
6/19/2009 12:16:59 PM

Sorry for the double post. OHM (Operator Headspace Malfunction), no doubt.


soprano
6/19/2009 12:14:34 PM

“Antediluvian,” “sumptuary,” and “hagiography" are all words whose meanings I learned in a public high school in Chicago, Illinois, in the 1960s. Perhaps New York Times readers should add "Words Are Important" booklets to their daily reading.


soprano
6/19/2009 12:13:53 PM

“Antediluvian,” “sumptuary,” and “hagiography" are all words whose meanings I learned in a public high school in Chicago, Illinois, in the 1960s. Perhaps New York Times readers should add "Words Are Important" booklets to their daily reading.