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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Vocabulary Inflation : Should We Resist or Join the Ranks of Those Who Toss Around $2 Words?

March 12, 1989|JACK SMITH

DR. ALBERT A. Trunk of the West Compton Medical Group writes to expostulate against the proliferation of sesquipedalianisms in his newspaper.

"Help!" he cries. "I'm beginning to dread reading the newspapers. We're getting addle-pated by adverbs, nutated by nouns, agitated by adjectives and propagandized by pronouns. I'm referring to writers who use vocabular(ies) so obtuse, unusual or downright rare that comprehending them is almost impossible without a good dictionary nearby. Can an inferiority complex be far behind?"

He lists words considered too rare for ready comprehension: cognoscenti, disparate, chortlers, atheneum, apothesis, Claymation and pastiche.

He complains that he couldn't find Claymation in his new Merriam-Webster's. Neither can I. (I am told that it is a term describing a technique of animating clay figures, as in the commercial for California raisins.)

Trunk takes cognoscenti from this fragment: "the cabal of the cognoscenti." Cabal , it seems to me, is just as esoteric as cognoscent i, and any person reading the kind of story that would use these words should either know them or should be happy to look them up.

Disparate is a $2 word for differen t, which would have served. Are not chortlers those who chortle? Anyone reading a story about art should know, or be glad to learn, that atheneum (or athenaeum ) is an ancient Greek temple or a meeting place in the Greek style. Apothesis is surely a misspelling of apotheosi s, which means the glorification of a person or a glorified ideal. (We might say, for example, that Joe Montana is the apotheosis of the professional quarterback.) If we didn't know that a pastiche is a mixture of themes or styles in art, music and so forth we ought to.

Excepting perhaps Claymation , I see no words in Trunk's list that any newspaper reader should be content not to know, and none that he should not be happy to learn. (In using nutate d, by the way, Trunk is hoist by his own petard.)

I grant that the average newspaper subscriber reading a news story or a sports story doesn't want to encounter lacunas in meaning caused by unfamiliar words. But readers of the more specialized sections ought to be delighted to add new words and new concepts to their knowledge. The newspaper has an obligation to teach as well as to inform. Anyone who can afford to subscribe to a newspaper can afford a dictionary.

I would not think of reading a column by William F. Buckley Jr. without a dictionary. Buckley tests even the cognoscenti. He was recently taken to task by two editors for using the words eristic and lapidar y and a outranc e, a French phrase.

Subsequently, in the New York Times Book Review, he put both these ignoramuses to the sword, observing, "I do not think of lapidary as a word so unrecognizable as to interrupt the reading flow of the average college graduate." Of a outranc e: "that word, and a hundred or so others, are a part of my 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."

He added: "Newspapers . . . tend to acknowledge an obligation beyond merely reporting the news. The very idea of a 'feature,' whether designed to advise (Ann Landers), amuse (Art Buchwald), satirize (G. B. Trudeau) or opine (the syndicated columnists) presupposes that the performer should use the full range of his relevant skills, even if the percentage of readers who turn to that feature is reduced. Surely there is a corner, in spacey papers that carry five pages on sports, for Addison and Steele?"

If your dictionary isn't handy, eristic means "given to sophistical argument and specious reasoning." Lapidary means "having the elegance and precision associated with inscriptions on monumental stones; a person who cuts, polishes and engraves precious stones." And a outrance mea ns "to the death, unsparingly."

By the way, sesquipedalianism, which is the word I used in the first paragraph of this column, means, literally, "a foot-and-a-half-long word" or any very long word.

It's a part of my working vocabulary, and I exercise my right to use it a outrance .

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