Ian Brown has a long piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail that discusses the importance or otherwise of a well-stocked vocabulary. He starts off with a striking anecdote:

In Chicago, in a downtown courtroom, lawyer Edward Greenspan won’t let Conrad Black take the stand.

The problem is Mr. Black’s fondness for whacking big words: tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective “braying”), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes), to list just a few of his verbal smatterings. Mr. Greenspan fears the Lord’s lingualism will turn off the jury.

He continues with a professor who says “One has to tell students in journalism school to express themselves simply, because they have been taught in high school to use big words in an effort to impress their professors” and another who says kids who don’t have a good vocabulary are at “considerable risk of continued low achievement.” Then comes a section about how the Educational Testing Service has been de-emphasizing vocabulary on the SATs, contrasted with the new National Vocabulary Contest to honor kids who know lots of words.

All this is fine, and written in an engaging style (“The Hit Parade of the top 50 words on the SAT… includes easy passes such as exculpate (to free from blame or guilt) but also yataghan, a guardless sword used in Muslim countries. It does not include yegg (a travelling burglar or safecracker) or yapp (a form of bookbinding), words your correspondent found while he was looking up yataghan“); alas, Mr. Brown then succumbs to the universal journalistic disease of setting up straw men to create an artificial battle of the sort beloved by hacks the world over, and when the subject is vocabulary, you just know one of the straw men is going to be those nasty linguists:

Where the argument over the importance of big words is now set to rage anew, however, is in universities across North America, in the Next Great Battle between the linguists and the logophiles.

The linguists, who have the upper hand at the moment, are very much of a type. They tend to be acolytes of American scholar William Labov, who developed the concept of code-switching. Standard vocabulary doesn’t need to be taught, the Labovites claim, because there’s no such thing as a standard vocabulary…

Some of the most militant linguists are Canadian. Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. “I think it’s partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change.”

Betwixt, for instance, “is just an old-fashioned word. So you shouldn’t use it. Nefarious, people don’t understand it, so don’t use it. I think it does put a distance between you and especially young people if you use an old-fashioned word. True, some people like to be old-fashioned. But I think the world is changing so rapidly that we should change with it. So if you don’t explain what it means, you waste people’s time.”

And the pleasure, the actual fun of knowing and using and privately sharing a word like, say, sciagraphy?

“My advice to people is to get pleasure out of explaining things clearly. You have to give up things you love. But then you can have a really great connection with people.”

I wonder how many linguists he had to canvass to find one who was willing to go on record discouraging people from using unusual words? But hey, once you find him, he becomes a representative sample! And then, of course, you can go on to mock linguists for using big words themselves: “The most recent issue of the International Journal of Lexicography, the go-to tome for learned language leaders, features an article with the title ‘Linguistic Lightbulb Moments: Zeugma in Idioms.'”

He takes a break for an amusing four-paragraph riff on the fun of using zeugma, then continues: “But not for the contemporary anti-vocabulary linguist, who values a word only in terms of its usefulness to a target audience,” and digs up a lexicographer (not the same thing as a linguist, but never mind), Katherine Barber (editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary), who explains the necessity for weeding words out of dictionaries while you add new ones and ends up making the absurd claim “We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language.” (I add the necessary disclaimer that Brown may have distorted, or even invented, the quote; reporters are notorious for playing fast and loose with the things the people they interview say—see Language Log.)

Then he quotes a couple of “logophiles” (read “cranks”): Thomas Delworth, an ambassador in Canada’s foreign service, objects to the use of fuck and fucking (what, those aren’t words?) and “blames the cheesy easiness of e-mail” (and, of course, “the linguists”) for “the barren state of our word cupboards.” And Robert Brustein, playwright, critic, teacher, and professional deplorer, finds “a deterioration in the capacity of students to use language… Imprecise writing… a laziness too. A kind of disconnect… the capacity to articulate what’s in your mind has declined…” Yes, kids today! They just don’t use language with the precision and grace of my generation! And the music they listen to, if you can call it music, and the clothes, and they have no respect for their elders and betters! If I ever start maundering like that, just shoot me. Can’t these people tell they’re just repeating the same cliches elders-and-betters have been proclaiming for millennia?

Ah, well. It’s a fun read, and I like his conclusion:

Because this is the solid thing about words, long or short: They wait for anyone who wants them, and cost nothing. You can use rare words for an ultra-efficient purpose, and you can juggle them for pleasure. But take the pleasure out of their use, and people stop using them.

“I don’t think there is any goal in having a vocabulary,” Thomas Delworth says from his perch toward the end of his rich spoken and written life. “I think it is its own reward. I can’t give you a cost-effectiveness breakdown. You simply have a somewhat larger grasp of this vast empire you might command.”

The alternative is that we use fewer and fewer of them, until the world is small enough that one word alone will suffice: Duh. (Interjection. Used to express actual or feigned ignorance or stupidity.)

(Thanks for the link, Derryl!)


  1. I wonder how many linguists he had to canvass to find one who was willing to go on record discouraging people from using unusual words?

    I don’t think he knows what a linguist is. What he found was a professor of education, and although some professors of education are also (applied) linguists, Clive Beck isn’t, so far as I can tell.

    I add the necessary disclaimer that Brown may have distorted, or even invented, the quote.

    I’ve heard Barber on the radio a few times, and in person once. From what I know of her sense of humour, I can easily imagine her saying something like “We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language” in jest (the more words there are, the more work she has to do), and relying on her audience to be, unlike Brown, clever enough to realize she wasn’t serious.

  2. I don’t think he knows what a linguist is. What he found was a professor of education
    Excellent point; I should have read even more skeptically, obviously.
    I can easily imagine her saying something like “We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language” in jest…, and relying on her audience to be, unlike Brown, clever enough to realize she wasn’t serious.
    Also an excellent point.

  3. Ginger Yellow says

    I doubt very much that it’s Black’s “lingualism” that’s keeping him from the stand. I suspect it’s that he comes across as the most arrogant, entitled snob you could possibly imagine. Any jury would loathe him the minute he opens his mouth.

  4. I don’t know why journalists insist on seeing themselves as champions of the language and linguists as their enemies. I’m beginning to feel that the biggest threat to the language isn’t linguists, as journalists love to claim, but the journalists themselves.

  5. I thought tricoteuses usually referred to the ladies knitting at the foot of the guillotine, rather than just “knitters of yarn” as he says.
    Still, as an ex-hack myself, it’s not a bad insult.

  6. Likewise, isn’t the International Journal of Lexicography for lexicographers? Sure, there’s lots of corpus linguistics and so on. (I used to get it — for fun, I am neither. But it was damned expensive.) And who precisely are these alliterative learned language leaders?
    As someone who not only knows what a yataghan is, but has a collection of them, I’m wondering how it got to be ye sworde of ye heathen Mahommedans. Turkish guardless sword. Or Ottoman, if you want to make it clear that taxi drivers in Ankara don’t wear them. Are rapiers slender sharp hilted swords used in Christian countries? I gotta say that this kind of “innocent” orientalism seems a lot more dangerous than too many words.

  7. Ian Brown has become fascinated with all of this because of the Conrad Black trial in Chicago. Black is very famous in Canada for his vocabulary, and Brown has written about this two or three times over the course of the trial. It almost smacks of an obsession.

  8. gasconading (blustering)
    Hey, I know that one!
    And who precisely are these alliterative learned language leaders?
    Um, Mr. Brown apparently has very little idea as to what lexicography is. Or, for that matter, what a scholarly journal is.
    Does anyone else find the phrase “a splashy lemma” a bit out of place, too?

  9. I’m all for a big vocabulary and pulling out the obscure and archaic words on occasion, but I don’t think one should just throw them out there willy-nilly for the hell of it. One, it makes you look like a pedantic snob. Two, the purpose of speech is communication; clear communication isn’t very easy when another person needs the OED to figure out what the hell you’re saying. Three, words like “poltroon” and “gasconading” are best thought of as spices that make a conversation yummy in small amounts, but make you sweat and have diarrhea if over-used.

  10. Splashy lemma: out of place. Agreed.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    “I don’t know why journalists insist on seeing themselves as champions of the language and linguists as their enemies.”
    I think journalists, or at least some journalists, see themselves as language experts because they write constantly. But of course journalism is only one small aspect of the language. It would be a bit like a civil engineer–even a good one–issuing pronouncements on particle physics.
    The idea that the language needs defending is an old one. Traditionally, journalists were regarded as one of the groups the language needed defending against, but it is an easy transition for a journalist to cast himself in the defender role.
    Why are linguists the enemy? Because they often reach the wrong conclusion, defining “wrong” as “different from what I already know”. The idea that language is a real field of study, using real data and stuff, is alien. After all, the journalist became an expert without all that pointy-headed stuff. So if we take as given that the language needs defending, and that linguists often say wrong stuff about the language, it follows that linguists are at best suspect.

  12. I have never seen “lemma” except in maths, where it’s handy rather than “splashy”.

  13. Well, “lemma” = “headword in a dictionary”. Only it’s one of those terms that are specific to a particular field of science (lexicography) and, more importantly, it’s not the same as “word”. Just another thing Mr. Brown isn’t aware of.

  14. No, “yataghan” is not in the Princeton Review’s “Hit Parade” of the 50 most frequent vocabulary words appearing on the SAT. It’s not even in the top 250. However, “florid” does make the cut.
    One of the things I’ve explained to kids when tutoring them for the SATs is that the so-called “Hit Parade” is made up of words that frequently appear in type of national-caliber periodicals that people read on subways, at Starbucks, or in the throne room — places where dictionaries (for the most part) are not handy. In short, they’re words educated readers are expected to know off the tops of their heads.
    We’re never going to level the playing field if admittedly delightful, yet essentially obscure, words like “yataghan” get tossed into the short list of what we’re expecting 16-year-olds to master.
    Meanwhile, Brown completely botches his reporting on the composition of the new SAT. The Math segment now only counts for 800 out of 2400 total points, rather than 800 out of 1600 points. Could someone please explain to me how that constitutes giving greater emphasis to mathematics?
    The segment that most colleges are currently choosing to overlook is the Writing segment, which introduced the much-ballyhooed essay requirement. Instead, colleges are focusing on the Critical Reading segment, which contains the most direct remaining test of vocabulary: multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank sentences. That’s where kids hit a dead end if they don’t know “candor” from “quandary” from a hole in the ground, and no amount of digging with a yataghan is going to bail them out.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Well, duh.

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