Monday, June 15, 2009

a glut of profligacy; a surfeit of solipsism

This is a funny piece I ran across on metafilter. It seems an editor at the NY Times ran an analysis on the 50 most-looked up words on the Times' site. (In case you don't read the Times online, any word you highlight in a Times story brings up a question mark you can click to get a Times dictionary definition of the word.)

Journalist Zachary M. Seward got a copy of the memo and the list the editor referenced, and it is a truly funny and bizarre snapshot of the thinking of writers at the Times. Here's Seward's lede:

"If The New York Times ever strikes you as an abstruse glut of antediluvian perorations, if the newspaper’s profligacy of neologisms and shibboleths ever set off apoplectic paroxysms in you, if it all seems a bit recondite, here’s a reason to be sanguine: The Times has great data on the words that send readers in search of a dictionary."

All those words that you kind of recognize but don't really know are on the list, by the way. My god, maybe all those red state rednecks are right: maybe people who read and write for the Times are a bunch of pointy-headed liberal, ivory tower-dwelling fuckwits without a trace of connection to the common man!

Jump to Seward's piece to see a list of the words. Or here's a Wordle version.

And here's a piece of the editor's memo that was kind of funny in its head-scratchingly bemused way:

"Some entries seem self-referential: it’s no coincidence that a list of obscure and difficult words includes abstruse and recondite, not to mention solipsistic. And while many of these words may look like a foreign language, some actually are: sui generis, bildungsroman and my old friend schadenfreude all make appearances. And some entries just seem baffling: how did we end up using louche 27 times?"

How indeed, Maureen Dowd? (Seward points out that she seems to like that word. A lot.)

Reminds me of one of my favorite Kids in the Hall sketches:

I have to say though, that, even as someone with what I hope is a decent vocabulary (guys, break's over; hand me that thing) I find myself using the dictionary function on my Kindle a lot. There are so many words that, while you may have a pretty good idea of what they mean, especially in context, the definition could be clearer. And with the Kindle, you click the word, and a brief definition pops up at the bottom of the page you are reading. For a more in-depth definition you can click again, and go to the dictionary itself for the full entry.

I mean, why not know more? Why not be more erudite?

On the other hand, New York Times, who has ever or will ever use the word "phlogiston" ever in a sentence, ever?

What is that, a species of alien in the new Star Trek movie? Some rare disease? A device employed by an especially ascetic order of monks to self-flagellate??


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