In a Word

Eloquence contretemps; ages of fable

Last June, the Los Angeles Times published a complaint from a reader named Grant Nemirow about all the obscure words that had appeared in a single article, a profile of director M. Night Shyamalan: phantasmagoria, bucolic, aesthetic, soupçon, diminution, schadenfreude, contretemps, and vicissitudes. “Ask people if they know what these words mean,” Nemirow wrote. “They don’t.” Other Times readers all but hooted Nemirow down.

But maybe he was right? (If so, The Atlantic’s editors will be interested: in the past few years, the magazine has published everything on his list.) One of few available assessment tools is the Web site, an “interactive presentation of the 86,800 most frequently used English words,” derived from the British National Corpus. (An American equivalent remains a work in progress.) The corpus consists of speech and text, from diverse sources, running to 100 million words. These can be sorted so as to find the words that get the most use. No.1, by a wide margin, is the. No.86,800 is conquistador.

If we believe the linguist David Crystal (and we should), an average college graduate is familiar with about 75,000 words. Not all graduates have identical vocabularies, so the list of 86,800 is probably a good cutoff point for words we can assume reasonably well-educated people know. Nemirow’s vicissitudes shows up at No. 34,121, contretemps at 81,041, and phantasmagoria not at all.

The major political speeches in this election year might be good data on which to try out our theory of the 86,800, because they are meant to reach everybody. Barack Obama is considered a brilliant speaker by fans and detractors alike, and he’s a wizard at connecting with young people. How complicated does his language get?

Unsurprisingly, none of Nemirow’s bêtes noires (excuse me—no-nos) appear in transcripts of a dozen of Obama’s recent speeches. And just three words in his August nomination-acceptance speech fail to make WordCount’s cut: retool, outsourced, and naysayers. As for McCain, the outliers in his acceptance speech were rancor, demoralize, and unluckier.

Oscar Wilde, of all people, once wrote, “It is perhaps a dangerous thing for a country to be too eloquent.” William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White put it differently. In their classic Elements of Style, they advise, “Avoid fancy words.”

Word Fugitives

Fancy words are more than welcome in our long-standing feature Word Fugitives. One linguistic invention recently requested was for “the aversion of many persons (young or old) to revealing their true age.”

A dismaying number of readers didn’t even try to be charitable. Samuel E. Front, of Hammond, Ind., wanted to call the folks in question egostatistical and calculating. Gregory Maguire, of Concord, Mass., proposed chronic liars.

The older crowd came in for particular abuse. Jim Wexler, of Sandyston, N.J., wrote, “These aging deniers don’t want to be eldercountable.” Laura Daigen-Ayala, of New York City, wrote, “While some people go under the knife to appear younger, these folks merely commit cosmetic perjury.”

But we wanted a word for the tendency—the aversion. Michael K. Johnson, of Apex, N.C., takes top honors for his fancy but refreshingly nonjudgmental coinage annumadversion.

Now Joanna Carr, of London, writes, “I often wish I had a word (to mutter under my breath) for people with absolutely no horse sense when using public transport or in crowds. You know, the ones who get off the top of the escalator and stop dead, people who swerve into your path, people who walk four abreast. Surely a good descriptive noun is long overdue in busy cities everywhere?”

Visit Barbara Wallraff’s new blog, at barbarawallraff, for more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and suggestions. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives.