All the news that's fit to cromulate
June 15, 2009 9:01 AM   Subscribe

The 50 words that generate the most click-throughs to the dictionary from the New York Times. The Nieman Journalism Lab reveals the words that sent NYT readers running to the Merriam-Webster. Key fact: Maureen Dowd is overly fond of the word "louche." If the post is TL;DR for you, here's the list in Wordle.
posted by escabeche (132 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's something nicely circular about seeing "abstruse" on that list.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:07 AM on June 15, 2009


It makes me inordinately happy that all these words are used in the New York Times.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2009


I think the people who look up "feckless" are gormless.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Louche" was looked up 4636 times, but since it was used in 27 articles that's only 172 lookups per use. I'd like to see that as a function of time, though. Also as a function of dwell time on the page.

Articles 1-5: WTF is "louche"?
Articles 6-10: Hey, a word I know!
Articles 11-27: STFU Dowd.
posted by DU at 9:15 AM on June 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


The ones I didn't know:

Sui generis is one of those things that I generally suss out by context, but don't know its meaning outside of it.

Others: louche, shibboleths, sumptuary, peripatetic, parlous, sartorial, hagiography, comity, Atreus (which I really should have known), inchoate, peroration, recondite, contretemps and appurtenances.

I knew 35/50, that's not too bad, right?

Hey, what's swine doing on this list?
posted by JHarris at 9:15 AM on June 15, 2009


Seems a bit louche to me.
posted by elfgirl at 9:16 AM on June 15, 2009


I imagine swine appears for the same reason they give for pandemic--frequency of use.
posted by elfgirl at 9:18 AM on June 15, 2009


loud : dowd :: louche : douche
posted by Plutor at 9:20 AM on June 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


This list is an adenoidal paroxysm of saturnine shibboleths.

* crosses arms * Check... Mate...
posted by boo_radley at 9:20 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the people who look up "feckless" are gormless.

But surely using a dictionary to look up a word displays a great deal of feck, and is the only way to achieve gorm?
posted by Sova at 9:20 AM on June 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


Maureen Dowd is overly fond of the word "louche."

Paging MeFite #54479.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:23 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I'm using a mouse and reading a lot of text at once, I always find myself clicking and dragging to randomly highlight different parts of the text as I go along.

Invariably, I do that same thing while reading the NYTimes.com site and I end up having to close multiple pop-ups because it doesn't understand that I don't want to look up an entire paragraph in the dictionary.

So to the data-compilers... I'm not really so stupid that I don't know the definition of the word "the". Honest. Sorry for skewing your results.
posted by educatedslacker at 9:27 AM on June 15, 2009 [30 favorites]


I think Bosley Crowther once used all 50 of those words in one article when he wrote his review panning "Bonnie and Clyde."
posted by blucevalo at 9:31 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I see the word "feckless" I get this song stuck in my head.
posted by exogenous at 9:35 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


What we don't see are the thousands of people who didn't look up a word, but either thought they knew the meaning when they didn't, or recognized that they didn't know the meaning but also didn't look it up and so effectively 'lost' that piece of information. I'm sure a good percentage of people who read a sentence containing the word solipsistic or saturnine have no more understanding at the end than they did at the beginning.

The sad thing is, I think many writers know the words they use will leave a good proportion reaching (or clikking) for the dictionary, and that's exactly why they use them. Not everything should be written in really simple language, but some writers (newspaper columnists are a prime example) do seem to like showing off just how big their lexicons are.
posted by Sova at 9:39 AM on June 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


blucevalo: "I think Bosley Crowther once used all 50 of those words in one article when he wrote his review panning "Bonnie and Clyde.""

I use at least a dozen of those words in regular conversation.

I'm unpopular.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2009 [9 favorites]


I know what it means, but of all the words on this list, "epistemological" looks the most like a made-up word. Validity, my ass.

This list brings back the howling fantods of studying SAT vocab. And yet, I managed to get a BA without ever needing to know what parlous means.

But how often should even a Times reader come across a word like hagiography or antediluvian or peripatetic, especially before breakfast?

NEVER! There should be a ban on "SAT words" before lunch time.

Often, I feel like there should be a ban on *life* before lunch time, but that's another matter
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:46 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Hagiography" is useful because there isn't a simpler and unambiguous single word synonym (that can be used in front of your mother). "Antediluvian" could be replaced by "old" but lacks the rhetorical punch and humor. "Peripatetic" is just a dumb word. Not only are there easier replacements, but "peripatetic" sounds more like a skin condition than anything else.
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


ta;du
posted by not_on_display at 9:57 AM on June 15, 2009 [16 favorites]


Unpopular doesn't even begin to cover it, Joe. Still, at least I have my Word.A.Day e-mails to keep me warm at night.
posted by Scattercat at 10:06 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aw, and here I am cheering because "hagiographically" and "peripatetic" are two of my favorite words.

The former is thanks to John Bellairs, whose double dactyl in The Face in the Frost1 accomplished the trifecta of introducing me to the double-dactyl, remaining in my memory and instantly accessible for the following twenty plus years, and first causing me to look up "hagiographically."

The latter because one must be at least somewhat peripatetic in order to have any hope of circumambulating anything, and "circumambulate" might just be my favorite word of all.

--

1. "Higgledy-piggledy, Saint Anastasius
riffled through volumes with unseemly haste.
Trying to find out if, hagiographically,
John of Jerusalem liked almond paste."
--Bellairs, 1969
posted by rusty at 10:08 AM on June 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm mostly amused that there's no way to, you know, look up the words on the list from the actual list of most-looked up words itself.* Maybe if the times had it hosted you could do it there.

* I purposely structure my sentences to hurt you, dear reader.
posted by Decimask at 10:09 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, hagiography is sui generis. Antediluvian is a pretty good one, and peripatetic...there isn't an exact synonym. "Well-traveled" is close, but awkward and lacking the intensity and the connotation of...well, almost an affliction. A predilection, anyway, toward constant travel.

And speaking of antediluvian, one of my favorite (similar) words, is prelapsarian, which, although in any standard dictionary, is not recognized as a word by Microsoft Word. (It means "the good old days, before civilization mucked up the world," or, as the dictionary puts it, "before the fall of man.")
posted by kozad at 10:13 AM on June 15, 2009


Haha...I knew every word on the list. I just don't understand why 'dauphin' was on it. I thought that was everyone's favorite animal.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:16 AM on June 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Key fact: Maureen Dowd is overly fond of the word "louche."

My favorite one, because I'm not even clear she realizes no one uses the word:
You don't often get to hear a political candidate described as ''louche'' these days. Especially when the word is used as a selling point.
posted by smackfu at 10:17 AM on June 15, 2009


This should put to rest all that talk about the mainstream media's unwillingness to investigate the 9/11-bonobo connection.
posted by total warfare frown at 10:17 AM on June 15, 2009


I use at least a dozen of those words in regular conversation.

I would posit there is nothing 'regular' about a conversation using those words.
posted by spicynuts at 10:18 AM on June 15, 2009


DU: ""Peripatetic" is just a dumb word"

What if someone calls us a pair o' pathetic peripatetics?
Shouldn't we have a ready retort?
posted by Plutor at 10:19 AM on June 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


I urge people to look past their justified distaste of anything associated with Maureen Dowd to embrace "louche" as the uncommonly useful word that it is.

I mean, if there's a more concise yet descriptive adjective for Vincent Gallo, I'm not aware of it.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:21 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Are we referring to hagiography literally or figuratively? In its literal sense it has no single-word synonym, but reverential, flattering, fawning, adulatory, sycophantic, etc can express the figurative meaning, depending on the precise level of criticism desired.
posted by jedicus at 10:21 AM on June 15, 2009


As some of you have already confessed, I too am one of those fuckers who uses the big words in everyday speech. Naturally, I have been informed on many, many occasions what a pompous prick I sound like. But the fact is that I just don't give a shit. One of the primary joys of English is its astounding depth. One you get the hang of the basic mechanics of using language, you then get the pleasure of playing with it. As DU notes above, you use antediluvian because it's the word that fucking works at that moment. And sometimes a word is beautiful simply because of its ridiculous number of syllables. Some of my favorite authors are the ones who require me to keep the dictionary right beside me while I read. Three cheers to all those gorgeous, obscure and/or archaic words that make language such a challenging and rewarding endeavor.

That said, yes, those reporters should probably chill it the fuck out.
posted by barrett caulk at 10:23 AM on June 15, 2009 [11 favorites]


reverential, flattering, fawning, adulatory, sycophantic

These are adjectives, while "hagiography" is a noun. "Adulation" maybe, but "flattery" is generally false or insincere and manipulative, while "hagiography" probably isn't either. That said, I wouldn't mind the addition of "syncophancy" to English.

"Well-traveled" is close, but awkward and lacking the intensity and the connotation of...well, almost an affliction

Nomadic.
posted by DU at 10:27 AM on June 15, 2009


"Peripatetic" is just a dumb word.

It's interesting too that there are some awful definitions of it in the dictionaries out there. Look up the definition on the Google link and they only have "Walking about or from place to place; traveling on foot". Not exactly what most of the uses mean.

Another fun thing is that I searched for the word in the NY Times and an article from 1872 came up that is called Peripatetic Pugilists. Two for one!
posted by smackfu at 10:27 AM on June 15, 2009


There's some part of me that hopes that phlogiston and bonobo were used as part of the same phrase.
posted by khaibit at 10:33 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


barrett caulk: "I have been informed on many, many occasions what a pompous prick I sound like. But the fact is that I just don't give a shit."

That.

I'm indifferent enough to such complaints in conversation. [You don't understand the meaning of a word I just used? How about this? Ask me. Expand your vocab rather than limiting someone else's. Or at least tell me in advance on what grade level I'll be required to converse with you.] But while you're reading something on the Web? Where the definitions are, you know, available? Fuck that.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:33 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I encountered my first louche many years ago, on my first visit to France. Being sui generis and not extremely parlous, I thought it was just a weird toilet. Paroxysms of comity ensued.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:36 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


"You don't often get to hear a political candidate described as 'louche' these days."

You don't often hear them referred to as "cad", either.

Or anyone else, alas.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:36 AM on June 15, 2009


I'm puzzled by the assumptions of both the writer of the linked article and many of the commentators in this thread that the only reason someone would use these words is to show off what capacious vocabularies they have. Not one of those words struck me as particularly recherché; I'd hate to think that reporters at the New York Times would be encouraged to dumb their usage down so as to exclude the use of any one of them.

There's nothing wrong with using a word that not every reader will immediately recognize unless the only reason you're using the word is to signal your uncommon erudition. Dictionaries exist for a purpose, and if you come across an unfamiliar word that is used appropriately you should be grateful for having your vocabulary expanded rather than kvetch about being forced to stop and think for a moment.
posted by yoink at 10:41 AM on June 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Just because most adults read at around a 10th grade level doesn't mean we all have to stop there too.
posted by dhartung at 10:42 AM on June 15, 2009 [7 favorites]


I've mainly rejected the Teachings of Heinlein I gathered during my youth, but this one remains firm. Unfortunately, I can't find the exact quote, but the basic idea is: If you have something to say, say it as clearly and simply as you can. If you have nothing to say, it doesn't matter how you say it, so use as many big words and as much obfuscation as you like.
posted by DU at 10:43 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I see the word 'feckless' I get this song stuck in my head.

I usually start drinkin' booze for breakfast.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:44 AM on June 15, 2009


"wordle"...
posted by Zambrano at 10:45 AM on June 15, 2009


Not one of those words struck me as particularly recherché; I'd hate to think that reporters at the New York Times would be encouraged to dumb their usage down so as to exclude the use of any one of them.

Actually, I think they generally are encouraged to dumb the usage down / keep it simple and straightfoward, and that most of these words end up being used in opinion pieces or by columnists, who have a lot less editorial control over them.
posted by smackfu at 10:46 AM on June 15, 2009


'Louche' is yet another word the English language has decided to take from French. Even though it might seem like this happens often, I would argue that the other way around is much more common, simply less officially accepted (i.e. featured in the dictionary). In all cases. the way 'louche' is pronounced in English is louche in its own way.
posted by TMcGregor at 10:48 AM on June 15, 2009


"Hagiography" is useful because there isn't a simpler and unambiguous single word synonym (that can be used in front of your mother).

Ok. I think you just broke my brain trying to come up with the single word synonym for hagiography that can't be used in front of my mother.
posted by juv3nal at 10:48 AM on June 15, 2009


These are adjectives, while "hagiography" is a noun

I was using the simple form, but other posters have indicated their love of hagiographically and the list on Wordle includes hagiographic. The adjective form could be literal or figurative, but I think the adverbial form is most likely to be used in a figurative sense, where it could easily be replaced with fawningly, reverentially, sycophantically, etc.

That said, I wouldn't mind the addition of "syncophancy" to English.

It's your lucky day.
posted by jedicus at 10:50 AM on June 15, 2009


I'm indifferent enough to such complaints in conversation. [You don't understand the meaning of a word I just used? How about this? Ask me. Expand your vocab rather than limiting someone else's. Or at least tell me in advance on what grade level I'll be required to converse with you.] But while you're reading something on the Web? Where the definitions are, you know, available? Fuck that.

There is a word for the style of communication you are advocating. But you already know it.
posted by srboisvert at 10:52 AM on June 15, 2009


...the single word synonym for hagiography that can't be used in front of my mother.

I was thinking of "blowjob" but when I re-read that comment I also came up with "ass-kissing". (Depending on your mother.)
posted by DU at 10:53 AM on June 15, 2009


Peripatetic: "Well-traveled" is close, but awkward and lacking the intensity and the connotation of...well, almost an affliction

Nomadic.


Still doesn't work for me. Nomadic implies journey by necessity, a peripatetic is driven to travel, not compelled by external circumstance.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I'm using a mouse and reading a lot of text at once, I always find myself clicking and dragging to randomly highlight different parts of the text as I go along.

You should thank the NYT for attempting to detrain you of this incredibly annoying habit. If you're one of the precious few who don't do this when someone else is reading the screen at the same time as you, please tell your clicky-draggy brethren to knock it off.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you really want to sound smart, just add -riffic or -tastic to the ends of other words. I do this all the time, and people just stop in their tracks, shaking their heads and looking away in awe of how smartastic I am.
posted by Mister_A at 10:59 AM on June 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


Nomadic implies journey by necessity...

On the contrary, a "nomad" is someone for whom travel is a lifestyle. You may be thinking of "exile".
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on June 15, 2009


Nomadic implies journey by necessity

Or perhaps a traditional lifestyle choice?

How about walkaboutish? No? Walkabouty?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:04 AM on June 15, 2009


Itinerant?
posted by lumensimus at 11:13 AM on June 15, 2009


It's an honor just to be nominated.
posted by Phlogiston at 11:17 AM on June 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was thinking of "blowjob" but when I re-read that comment I also came up with "ass-kissing". (Depending on your mother.)

Wait, that's what hagiography means? I thought it meant something more like beatification?
posted by juv3nal at 11:17 AM on June 15, 2009


Peripatetic is not limited to geographic wandering, it's often used in the sense of "wandering thoughts".
posted by phrontist at 11:18 AM on June 15, 2009


The one word that stands out to me is "bonobo". It's the name for a species of not-quite-chimpanzees who are particularly noteworthy only for their mating habits and the resulting social structures founded on frequent casual sex.

The inclusion of this word in the list makes me wonder several things: Interesting article, nonetheless...

*Yes, also a region in Germany, which left me as a native speaker of German kind of stumped when I first encountered it. But that would be an exception.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 11:18 AM on June 15, 2009


If you have something to say, say it as clearly and simply as you can.

That sort of shit might have been acceptable before God wiped the Earth bare is his cleansing flood, but it won't fly here.

OR

Your behaviour is antediluvian.

I mean, the word doesn't mean "old" - it means "before the flood". If only it could be used more commonly, to refer to any flood, e.g. "Antediluvian New Orleans was so much nicer".
posted by GuyZero at 11:20 AM on June 15, 2009


Why were people looking it up and not just deriving its meaning from the context?

Hoping for pictures of monkey-sex.

Wait, that's what hagiography means? I thought it meant something more like beatification?

I've mainly encountered it in a sarcastic sense of "beatification". As in "Check out the hilarious hagiography of Cheney on RedState.com".
posted by DU at 11:21 AM on June 15, 2009


I'm writing the first autohagiography.
posted by GuyZero at 11:22 AM on June 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


I mean, the word doesn't mean "old" - it means "before the flood".

If a simpler phrasing doesn't capture the meaning you want, then it isn't "as simply as you can". Like Einstein said: Make things as simple as possible...but no simpler!
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on June 15, 2009


nice to know I'm not the only sesquipidilian here :)
posted by supermedusa at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


They say bonobo was used in one article, and I'm almost certain it's this one. The title is "What Woman Want", but the first line is: "Meredith Chivers is a creator of bonobo pornography", and they don't define bonobo for a few sentences.
posted by smackfu at 11:34 AM on June 15, 2009


Right, kick ass. Well, don't want to sound like a dick or nothin', but, ah... it says on your chart that you're fucked up, you talk like a fag, and your shit's all retarded.
posted by benzenedream at 11:35 AM on June 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


The Guardian recently, not exactly seriously, used a work previously unknown to me: 'sedevacantists'... and I see the NYT has already used variations on it, twice.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:40 AM on June 15, 2009


I'd like to take this moment to address the question of what the people who don't look the words up are thinking.
posted by cortex at 11:43 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


The following is a list of what those guesses.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:45 AM on June 15, 2009


I don't know what those you're talking about.
posted by cortex at 11:46 AM on June 15, 2009


DU: ""Peripatetic" is just a dumb word"

What if someone calls us a pair o' pathetic peripatetics?


Just tell them to fuck off.

I'm writing the first autohagiography.

Aleister Crowley already beat you to it.
posted by philip-random at 11:49 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


'Louche' is yet another word the English language has decided to take from French. Even though it might seem like this happens often, I would argue that the other way around is much more common, simply less officially accepted (i.e. featured in the dictionary). In all cases. the way 'louche' is pronounced in English is louche in its own way.

While we're all gleefully looking things up, perhaps some of us might benefit from switching over to our encyclopedia and flipping to "Norman Invasion."
posted by Sys Rq at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2009


I'm writing the first autohagiography.

Aleister Crowley already beat you to it.


Joseph Smith.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:54 AM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


What if someone calls us a pair o' pathetic peripatetics?
Shouldn't we have a ready retort?


If you're peripatetic, all you have to do is just shrug it off and move on.
posted by Spatch at 11:57 AM on June 15, 2009


Hagiography is often used to describe historical figures and the subjects of biography when they are treated as secular saints, either because the writer truly admires them or because it is useful to his narrative or agenda. Sycophancy is a poor substitute since it misrepresents the motivations of the author. So far, no one has offered a good synonym.
posted by Tashtego at 11:58 AM on June 15, 2009


Recondite? Abstruse? Floccinaucinihilipilification!
posted by klangklangston at 12:00 PM on June 15, 2009


I am surprised that indefatigable isn't on that list. Color me stupid, but I had no idea what that word meant or how to pronounce it as late as 4 weeks ago.

Somebody was reading the toilet paper word of the day...
posted by Gravitus at 12:01 PM on June 15, 2009


I think that's because people just read it as "indefeatable", which is close enough in most contexts.
posted by smackfu at 12:04 PM on June 15, 2009


Maybe Katukani has cooled it on all the limning?
posted by HeroZero at 12:07 PM on June 15, 2009


Color me stupid, but I had no idea what that word meant or how to pronounce it as late as 4 weeks ago.

I'm familiar with it because I grew up playing Jutland with my dad and my little brother. It turns out that if you just charge in with guns ablazing against a superior tactician, the Indefatigable actually isn't, at all.
posted by cortex at 12:10 PM on June 15, 2009


While we're all gleefully looking things up, perhaps some of us might benefit from switching over to our encyclopedia and flipping to "Norman Invasion."

Or Norman Conquest, if we're being pendanterrific.

The way 'louche' is pronounced in English is louche in its own way.

Er, its English and French pronunciations are identical.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:17 PM on June 15, 2009


pedant. pedant pedant pedant. Fucking typos.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:17 PM on June 15, 2009


Can I just say, since it happened to me twice on this thread, that I love it when I favorite a comment, and because I haven't refreshed the page in a while, it comes up as [2 favorites -] instead of one. Makes me feel like I have Supa Favorite Powa.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:18 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hagiography is often used to describe historical figures and the subjects of biography when they are treated as secular saints...So far, no one has offered a good synonym.

The OED does not reflect this usage, but I'll take your word for it. Why would reverence or veneration not fit the bill? "Smith's new book about Washington is a veneration of the founding father and general?" or "Smith's reverent biography of Washington was released this week."

Or perhaps laudation? "Smith wrote a laudation of Washington."

Anyway, the use of one obscure word in a figurative sense when two non-obscure, literal words are perfectly adequate seems kind of silly. Were I the editor of the NYT, I would treat the list as a list of words to avoid in the future.
posted by jedicus at 12:33 PM on June 15, 2009


I know the word "indefatigable" from Monty Python's Knights of the Round Table song.

I do not, however, know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:39 PM on June 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hagiography is often used to describe historical figures and the subjects of biography when they are treated as secular saints, either because the writer truly admires them or because it is useful to his narrative or agenda. Sycophancy is a poor substitute since it misrepresents the motivations of the author. So far, no one has offered a good synonym.

Well, the original hagiographies were quite complicated, often involving the flaws and errors of the saint, not just their godliness. Lives/vitas had several roles, the first of which was neither history nor unthinking glorification, but more as tool to educate the masses and mythologize the "perfect" Christian, and often gave examples of their fallibility. Female saints' lives might include examples of their youthful 'vanities' or sexual urges; male lives might include greed, pride, and even causing death. (I think there's a complicated 'be like Jesus in his trials' ideal on one side, but a 'you're never going to be as perfect as Jesus' necessity on the other.)

The word hagiography in English isn't that old, and the meaning attached to it today outside of religious settings is different. It describes an unthinking and blindly glorifying style of biography, and is often (at least mildly) critical of the person who wrote the biography/work described. Given that we're not describing actualy saints' lives, but simply criticizing the work of others, I don't see why words can't be found that are at least suitable, or even better in the sense of being more precise and less dramatic. 'Idealization' comes to mind, or 'mythologizing' is possible. I'm sure many other words are out there that fit the need.
posted by Sova at 12:40 PM on June 15, 2009


Dictionaries exist for a purpose, and if you come across an unfamiliar word that is used appropriately you should be grateful for having your vocabulary expanded rather than kvetch about being forced to stop and think for a moment.

QFT. I suppose the reason that people get het up about finding an unfamiliar word is that it makes them feel ignorant. Well, the sorry fact is that we learn only through the death of the ego.

I used to wonder as a kid, when leafing through my grandparents' Readers Digests, at exactly who the Increase Your Word Power page was meant to be for. I was a smartass kid who read a lot of books, but I assumed adults were smarter than I was. Who, then, would be reading this and be baffled by words like charlatan and victorious and ascend?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:43 PM on June 15, 2009


I'm writing the first autohagiography.

Aleister Crowley already beat you to it.

Joseph Smith.


Salvador Dali
posted by rusty at 12:47 PM on June 15, 2009


[I couldn't find a single list with all the definitions, so I made one for myself.]

sui generis - constituting a class alone : unique, peculiar (pronounced "sue I generous" or "sooey generous")
solipsistic - extremely egocentric (Solipsism)
louche - disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way
laconic - using few words; expressing much in few words; concise
saturnine - cold and steady in mood : slow to act or change : of a gloomy or surly disposition : having a sardonic aspect
antediluvian - made, evolved, or developed a long time ago : extremely primitive or outmoded (originally referred to the period before the flood described in the Bible)
epistemological - related to the theory of knowledge (Epistemology)
shibboleth - a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning
penury - a cramping and oppressive lack of resources, especially money : extreme frugality
sumptuary - relating to personal expenditures and especially to prevent extravagance and luxury : designed to regulate extravagant expenditures or habits especially on moral or religious grounds
schadenfreude - satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune
peripatetic - travelling from place to place : esp, working or based in various places for short periods
abtruse - difficult to comprehend
parlous - full of danger or risk
enervating - reducing the mental or moral vigor of : lessening the vitality or strength of
adenoidal - exhibiting the characteristics (as snoring, mouth breathing, and voice nasality) of one affected with abnormally enlarged adenoids : (not usually used technically)
feckless - ineffective; incompetent; futile : having no sense of responsibility; indifferent; lazy
Solipsism - extreme egocentrism (can also refer to a philosophical idea)
ersatz - being an artificial and inferior substitute or imitation
fealty - intense fidelity
sanguine - cheerfully optimistic, hopeful, or confident : a reddish or ruddy complexion : bloody : blood-red
sartorial - of or relating to a tailor or tailored clothes : broadly, of or relating to clothes
hagiography - a biography of a saint or venerated person : often used as a pejorative for uncritical or overly reverential biographies and histories.
pandemic - an epidemic that is geographically widespread; occurring throughout a region or even throughout the world : existing everywhere
Dauphin - formerly, the eldest son of the King of France and direct heir to the throne
antebellum - existing before a war : often refers to the period before the American Civil War
paroxysm - a sudden violent emotion or action
risible - arousing or provoking laughter : often used in a negative sense, meaning "laughable"
interlocutor - one who takes part in dialogue or conversation
swine - a pig or pigs, collectively
apotheosis - the highest point in the development of something : a culmination or climax
comity - a friendly social atmosphere : social harmony : a loose widespread community based on common social institutions : the informal and voluntary recognition by courts of one jurisdiction of the laws and judicial decisions of another (known as "comity of nations") : avoidance of proselytizing members of another religious denomination
Atreus - Atreus, king of Mycene, was the son of Pelops and the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. (more info)
banal - lacking originality, freshness, or novelty : trite
profligacy - recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources
sisyphean - pointless and interminable (Sisyphus)
inchoate - being only partly in existence or operation : especially, imperfectly formed or formulated : formless, incoherent
apoplectic - of a kind to cause or apparently cause stroke ("an apoplectic rage") : greatly excited or angered
neologism - a new word, meaning, usage, or phrase
bildungsroman - a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character : a "coming of age" novel
peroration - the concluding part of a discourse and especially an oration, typically used to inspire enthusiasm in the audience
fungible - able to replace or be replaced by another item : mutually interchangeable
recondite - hidden from sight, concealed : little known or obscure
Bonobo - a pygmy chimpanzee found in swamp forests in Zaire
phlogiston - a hypothetical substance once believed to be present in all combustible materials and to be released during burning
contretemps - an inopportune or embarrassing occurrence or situation : dispute, argument (pronounced sorta kinda like "con-trah-TAH" or "cone-truh-TAH")
appurtenance - an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or style of living
glut - overeat or eat immodestly : flood : supply with an excess of
fecklessness - incompetence; futility : indifference; laziness
posted by Ian A.T. at 12:53 PM on June 15, 2009 [30 favorites]


Don't use a big word where a diminutive one adequately suffices.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:55 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Heh. Also Charles Mingus.
posted by barrett caulk at 1:01 PM on June 15, 2009


From the first link, Dictionary.com's most searched for words. Over the months, the most looked-up word appears to be search:
More than anything else, users are clicking on the Search button without entering a term, which brings up results for the definition of “search.”
Go, users!
posted by chorltonmeateater at 1:07 PM on June 15, 2009


barrett caulk: "I have been informed on many, many occasions what a pompous prick I sound like. But the fact is that I just don't give a shit."

That.

I'm indifferent enough to such complaints in conversation. [You don't understand the meaning of a word I just used? How about this? Ask me. Expand your vocab rather than limiting someone else's. Or at least tell me in advance on what grade level I'll be required to converse with you.] But while you're reading something on the Web? Where the definitions are, you know, available? Fuck that.


You know, the word antisocial has three synonyms. Three!
posted by Sova at 1:10 PM on June 15, 2009


dhartung: Just because most adults read at around a 10th 5th grade level doesn't mean we all have to stop there too.

True.

Joe Beese: Expand your vocab rather than limiting someone else's. Or at least tell me in advance on what grade level I'll be required to converse with you.

I tend to edit my vocabulary for my audience, because the point of talking is communication, and possibly persuasion. I'd rather not confuse people and make them feel ignorant by using words they're unlikely to know. Tends to work against good conversation. Plus when I do happen to use an unfamiliar word, they're more likely to betray their confusion so I can clarify.

Personally, I appreciate it when people adjust their vocabulary for me as well. When I talk shop with molecular biologists, for example, we usually dance about a little until we land at the level I can understand. When people don't bother to accommodate the audience, the reason is usually a) they're enjoying a superiority trip, or b) suitable rephrasing is beyond their standard rhetorical capacity.
posted by zennie at 1:11 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


abtruse - difficult to comprehend
recondite - hidden from sight, concealed : little known or obscure


Even better, from answers.com:

abstruse: Difficult to understand; recondite
recondite: Not easily understood; abstruse
posted by smackfu at 1:16 PM on June 15, 2009


I suspect "louche" appeared mainly in articles about absinthe.
posted by 445supermag at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Laconic" made the list?

Sweet.
posted by quin at 1:24 PM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personally, I appreciate it when people adjust their vocabulary for me as well. When I talk shop with molecular biologists, for example, we usually dance about a little until we land at the level I can understand. When people don't bother to accommodate the audience, the reason is usually a) they're enjoying a superiority trip, or b) suitable rephrasing is beyond their standard rhetorical capacity."

Or c) paying you the compliment of assuming that you don't need accommodation.

Or d) expressing themselves in the way that comes naturally to them.

Or e) letting the other person deal with their own inferiority complex.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:30 PM on June 15, 2009


Don't care for phlogiston; I'm an ash man, myself.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:32 PM on June 15, 2009


Uh-oh, this is threatening to get contentious. Let all Mefites embosom each other.
posted by barrett caulk at 1:33 PM on June 15, 2009


Personally, I appreciate it when people adjust their vocabulary for me as well. When I talk shop with molecular biologists, for example, we usually dance about a little until we land at the level I can understand. When people don't bother to accommodate the audience, the reason is usually a) they're enjoying a superiority trip, or b) suitable rephrasing is beyond their standard rhetorical capacity."

Or c) paying you the compliment of assuming that you don't need accommodation.

Or d) expressing themselves in the way that comes naturally to them.

Or e) letting the other person deal with their own inferiority complex.


I see that conversation would go well.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:34 PM on June 15, 2009


N'th ing educatedslacker. New York Times Kill Doubleclick Dictionary.
posted by acro at 1:36 PM on June 15, 2009


Maureen Dowd is overly fond of the word "louche."
Funny, "louche" rhymes with what I think of when I hear her name.
posted by hooptycritter at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Invariably, I do that same thing while reading the NYTimes.com site and I end up having to close multiple pop-ups because it doesn't understand that I don't want to look up an entire paragraph in the dictionary.
Glad to hear I'm not the only one who does that.
posted by steambadger at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2009


We used to call my Aunt "Auntie Diluvian".
posted by Mister_A at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Glad to hear I'm not the only one who does that.

Yeah, that was my reaction, too. Here's a blog post with the same NYT.com complaint, full of people saying "Oh my god, I do that, too!"
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:53 PM on June 15, 2009


Teaching high school English is a great job because I get to use all those ten-dollar words. I wouldn't use them in most conversational situations, though. Seriously, why would you want to sound like a pompous asshole and make people feel stupid at the same time?

(I suppose Mensa meetings would be fine with louche-talkers, but aside from the occasional accidental encounters with the over-educated, I don't seem to run into conversations where I can use these words. Also, even when hanging out with people who know these words well enough, these locutions seem to be generally relegated to the written word. I'm not sure many of these Times op-ed columnists use them in their daily conversation, except for the ones who wear bow ties. That is, George Will, when he's not talking baseball.)

Almost all the words we're discussing here have unique connotations, even denotations. But there's one I've been conflicted about recently: risible.

I really like the word, but does it really have any advantage over the more universally understood "'laughable"? I have the feeling it might have a more sarcastic connotation.
posted by kozad at 2:00 PM on June 15, 2009


The former is thanks to John Bellairs, whose double dactyl in The Face in the Frost1 accomplished the trifecta of introducing me to the double-dactyl,

Woah rusty, thanks for introducing me to the double dactyl. Tricky, delightful little things.

Higgledy-piggledy,
Miss Maureen Dowd
writes her louche articles
for New York Times,

That rarified, rather
antediluvian
paper, whose recondite
vocab's a crime.
posted by bookish at 2:01 PM on June 15, 2009


25 years of Elvis Costello reviews

1984: The arrangements also underscore the limitations of Mr. Costello's astringent, adenoidal voice.

1991: Mr. Costello's singing has changed as much as his appearance. In the old days, he flaunted a clenched adenoidal intonation as a badge of his alienated punk-rock sensibility.

1993: And especially in his quieter moments, his adenoidal baritone, with its wide, quavering vibrato, communicates a pained intensity.

1994: The keyboards, alternating from 1960's organ swirls to anthemic 80's synthesizer lines, punctuated his every adenoidal phrase, as the bass and drums gently prodded from behind.

1995: His expressive range is ultimately determined by his own raw, adenoidal singing. He sounds by turns sneering, vulnerable, desperate and enthusiastic.

1996: The music at the Supper Club was spare, with Mr. Costello's adenoidal singing and light guitar strumming accompanied only by Steve Nieve, an original member of Mr. Costello's former backup band, the Attractions, who ornamented the songs with piano coloratura.

1998: The disparity between Mr. Bacharach's achingly beautiful music and Mr. Costello's raw, geeky voice with its adenoidal vibrato can be jarring.

2001: And instead of working with baritones like Bryn Terfel, she faced the adenoidal voice of Mr. Costello.

2006: Mr. Toussaint sang lead, his relaxed, conversational baritone providing a contrast to Mr. Costello’s plangent and slightly adenoidal vocal style.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 2:05 PM on June 15, 2009 [45 favorites]


I suspect "louche" appeared mainly in articles about absinthe.

I always associate it with opium. Same aroma of antiquated decadence, I suppose.
posted by steambadger at 2:06 PM on June 15, 2009


Personally, I appreciate it when people adjust their vocabulary for me as well. When I talk shop with molecular biologists, for example, we usually dance about a little until we land at the level I can understand. When people don't bother to accommodate the audience, the reason is usually a) they're enjoying a superiority trip, or b) suitable rephrasing is beyond their standard rhetorical capacity."

Or c) paying you the compliment of assuming that you don't need accommodation.

Or d) expressing themselves in the way that comes naturally to them.

Or e) letting the other person deal with their own inferiority complex.


That's still failure to communicate your point, only at various levels of spectacularitude.
posted by zennie at 2:18 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


We used to call my Aunt "Auntie Diluvian".

What a winsome sobriquet.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 3:17 PM on June 15, 2009


When I talk shop with molecular biologists, for example, we usually dance about a little until we land at the level I can understand. When people don't bother to accommodate the audience, the reason is usually a) they're enjoying a superiority trip, or b) suitable rephrasing is beyond their standard rhetorical capacity.

There's a fairly clear difference between technical jargon and words like "louche," "sui generis," "feckless," or "abstruse." There is clearly no reason to expect the average person to have mastered the technical jargon of molecular biologists, literary critics or bicycle designers, for example. But any widely read speaker of English will have had occasion--probably multiple occasions--to come across the vast majority of words on this list. If you limited ourselves only to those words that, say, 95% of all competent English speakers can be sure to know, our language would become a pretty thin and uninspiring gruel, would it not?

If your response to hearing an unfamiliar word is "that guy thinks he's such a bigshot!" rather than "excuse me, that was an interesting word, do you know anything about its etymology?" then that probably says more about you than about the speaker.
posted by yoink at 4:20 PM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


"If we limit ourselves..." (when will Metafilter get a 30-second oops-edit function?).
posted by yoink at 4:21 PM on June 15, 2009


Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip summed it up nicely when he wrote in Throwing Off Glass:

And just like after she heard
the word 'iridescent'
everything was iridescent for awhile
posted by bwg at 4:40 PM on June 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Hello AP English vocab list!
posted by rubah at 4:47 PM on June 15, 2009


I guess I'm the only one who didn't know NYT did this. I've "allowed" everything through Firefox but it still won't pop up the definitions. *sob*
posted by deborah at 4:50 PM on June 15, 2009


sui generis - constituting a class alone : unique, peculiar (pronounced "sue I generous" or "sooey generous")

At my house, we pronounce it Stewie generis.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:00 PM on June 15, 2009


There's a fairly clear difference between technical jargon and words like "louche," "sui generis," "feckless," or "abstruse." There is clearly no reason to expect the average person to have mastered the technical jargon of molecular biologists, literary critics or bicycle designers, for example. But any widely read speaker of English will have had occasion--probably multiple occasions--to come across the vast majority of words on this list. If we limited ourselves only to those words that, say, 95% of all competent English speakers can be sure to know, our language would become a pretty thin and uninspiring gruel, would it not?

If your response to hearing an unfamiliar word is "that guy thinks he's such a bigshot!" rather than "excuse me, that was an interesting word, do you know anything about its etymology?" then that probably says more about you than about the speaker.


The example I gave was a bit unclear; I am very much expected to understand molecular biology. And I do. Just not everything. Regardless, I still feel the basic premise is the same. Peoples' lives and experiences and education and opportunities dictate what they'll immediately understand, and to effectively communicate you've got to account for that.

If your command of the language is well-developed, shouldn't you be able to come up with the words to impart your ideas to the person with the limited vocabulary? One could say that having a limited vocabulary is a result of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to bother learning the language. Sometimes that's the case. But one could also say that choosing not to modulate word choice to suit the occasion is also intellectually lazy and shows an unwillingness to bother communicating properly.

I'm not advocating thinning the language out to a boring gruel. I love that words come in many subtle flavors. Admiring each alone can be wonderful. However, isn't the skill of the chef is as important as the content of the pantry? How do you take pride in preparing an exquisite stuffed pheasant if your dinner guest has no teeth?
posted by zennie at 6:42 PM on June 15, 2009


I;m either dunb or unpsychic cause I don't know the words you know. I assume if you went to college, all is fair game.
posted by dame at 7:17 PM on June 15, 2009


barrett caulk: Let all Mefites embosom each other.

What a splendiferously cromulent exhortation!
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:33 PM on June 15, 2009


I was pretty lazy about using a dictionary back when they were made of paper, so whatever I know about these words, I mostly know by their context. I was pretty close with most, but there's a - well, inchoate - cloud of connotation that's built up around some of them. Pictures, not words, or even ideas.

Now that Ian has posted the list, I realize I'll need to find a word for what I thought laconic meant.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 8:04 PM on June 15, 2009


I really enjoyed this - partly because I recognized some of the words as I'd looked them up in the past (I too said yay for hagiography, been into that since high school, all the grim and freaky deaths were great reading - don't get me started on all the saints you can find whose names are close to saturnine). Also because I have to admit, I had no idea you could look up the words on the Time's site. (Boy do I feel unobservant.) I always do word look ups in another site, in another browser tab. (Speaking of which, if anyone has a good dictionary to recommend - I'm making notes of what people are linking. I use dictionary.com but have been wondering if there's something better while I decide whether to trust Wicktionary - doubtful that I will.)

The word shibboleths always bothers me. It makes me think of H. P. Lovecraft's shoggoths. But I know that I've looked it up in the past because I recognize the photo on that wikipedia page ("Statue of Pier Gerlofs Donia in his hometown of Kimswerd"). I'm betting it was in my head thanks to a Times article.

I'm pretty sure that I've read the word in a review on absinthe, which I did quite a bit of research on after the husband bought a few bottles. No idea if I can blame that one on the Times though.

Word I'm most surprised isn't in there - nonplussed. North America is apparently using it differently now. LA Times columnist finds the new definition very annoying. But I guess the problem there is that people aren't looking it up, but should be doing so.

This is all giving me flashbacks to SAT/GRE cramming sessions. So nice there's not a test involved this time.
posted by batgrlHG at 8:07 PM on June 15, 2009


Darnit, meant to add that I've read the word louche in a review on absinthe - left out the key word!. And missed the previous absinthe comment!
posted by batgrlHG at 8:22 PM on June 15, 2009


The word shibboleths always bothers me. It makes me think of H. P. Lovecraft's shoggoths.

I have the same issue but with "bothers" swapped out for "delights". Like the Gileadites and the Ephraimites were throwing down on the Jordan over the relative canonical verity of their respective Lovecraft slashfic efforts.
posted by cortex at 9:13 PM on June 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's amusing to see which of the MeFi community can simultaneously argue for prescriptivism on the basis of "clarity," yet argue for sesquipedalian usage.

Regarding the list, especially with shades of meaning—many of these words I thought actually were more specific than they actually are. Like, "laconic" has long held the association for me not just of terseness, but of a dour terseness. I suppose I could qualify this with some appeal to the origin, but since I just learned or just realized it, it's not really something that bore on my usage.
posted by klangklangston at 10:39 PM on June 15, 2009


Perhaps I was thinking a combination of laconic and lachrymal.
posted by klangklangston at 10:41 PM on June 15, 2009


It's amusing to see which of the MeFi community can simultaneously argue for prescriptivism on the basis of "clarity," yet argue for sesquipedalian usage.
I could make that argument, and probably have. Words are useful because (and when) they are understood similarly both by the speaker and their interlocutor1. When people react to me with kneejerk anti-pescriptivism, it's usually because I'm arguing that two words that have distinct meanings for me should have distinct meanings for everyone because they "prescriptively" do have those distinct meanings. The gain is a richer shared vocabulary, which make communication easier. Likewise using a few big or rare but well-chosen words can make a sentence not just more concise but also clearer and more precise.

1I couldn't resist
posted by hattifattener at 11:14 PM on June 15, 2009


Someone needs to compile the list of "words most frequently looked-up relative to their frequency of usage by David Foster Wallace (and journalists who unconsciously ape him)." I agree that quantifying people's ignorance of bonobos seems more interesting than writers' fondness for "inchoate."
posted by mubba at 11:35 PM on June 15, 2009


... meanwhile, there was a suspicious smell emanating from the stereobate.
posted by philip-random at 11:38 PM on June 15, 2009


Just the other day I took the Laconic, and I'm surprised that anyone outside of NY, NJ, and Conn would have heard of it.

what do you mean, 'it isn't a parkway'?
posted by zippy at 12:51 AM on June 16, 2009


if anyone has a good dictionary to recommend

When I was making that list up above, I mostly used Merriam-Webster.com and Dictionary.com (which uses a proprietary dictionary "based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary"). When neither of those were satisfactory, though, I used OS X's built in dictionary, which uses the Oxford American dictionary, and I was really impressed by the quality and clarity of the definitions.
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:04 AM on June 16, 2009


Elvis Costello comes from Liverpool. His accent is probably described as 'adenoidal' because the Liverpool accent is adenoidal.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2009


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