Friday, April 9, 2010

NYT Reports Most-Looked-Up Words

The Nieman Journalism Lab is circulating a memo from the New York Times that provides a list of the words that its readers are most frequently looking up. Of the 50 words on the list, I recognize only about half.

Although the deputy news editor somewhat addresses this point, using difficult words for the sake of using difficult words should be generally avoided, especially in newspaper copy. Of course, this writerly disease stretches into all disciplines where writing to impress is the main goal, even at the sacrifice of clarity.

While the New York Times audience is more educated than most (and sometimes snobbishly proud of it), an obscure word distracts from whatever point the writer was making. Many online readers will have their attention momentarily diverted to looking up the word, while most print readers will just be left scratching their heads. A few wordsmiths will get some pleasure out of discovering a new word (on the off chance that they, being wordsmiths, don't already know it), but is that worth the inconvenience to the rest of us? Then again, maybe the paper makes more money as a status symbol of intelligence than it would as the standard for clarity, simplicity, and straightforwardness.

Certainly, one could take my argument too far and satirize it by insisting that, by my logic, we shouldn't even use words like "satirize." There's got to be a happy medium somewhere, and I suppose that's why most newspapers aim to write at the eighth-grade level.

And of course there's a difference between using a technical economic, scientific, or medical term that can't be described any other way and using a flashier and more esoteric synonym of a common word just for show.

3 comments:

Adam Gurri said...

They need as many difficult words as necessary, and not one more!

Josh Hattersley said...

Whilst composing prose for consumption by my human brethren, I utilize solely that amalgam of diction, syntax, and tone which best eschews obfuscation.

Solely.

Greg Finley said...

I knew when I was writing this that you would leave some comment with monolithic words like that. :)