Jewish World Review March 21, 2006 / 21 Adar, 5766
Confessions of a word addict
"There is a disease which consists in loving words too much. Logophilia first manifests itself in childhood and is, alas, incurable." — Peter Ackroyd in The Times of London, March 20, 2002.
The letter got my attention from the first. It might have been typed on an old Remington, or maybe a Royal portable, giving it the authority of a time past. And not only did the note evoke the feel of an old-time country newspaper, but it mentioned my alma mater:
"Back when I was editor, publisher, photographer and reporter of a 7,000-circulation weekly in Illinois," it began, "I would sometimes get tempted to use a two-dollar word that I had learned at the University of Missouri . . . ."
I had to admire the lovely, nostalgic windup, even though I could see the curve ball coming:
"Then I would think of the white-haired couple down the street," my valued correspondent continued, "loyal subscribers for many years, who had not gotten further than the sixth grade when they went to school many years before."
The sharp-breaking curve turned out to be a bean ball:
"The next day I read a column by Paul Greenberg . . . wherein he used words like . . . teutonically, didactic, olfactorily, orotund, Metternich, Realpolitik, Machtpolitik, Weltanschauung, bipolar, amorphous, Caliphate, polemic . . . ."
Ooo-wee, that smarts. My critic had lined up all those fancy words like so many suspicious characters in a police lineup, and every one of them looked guilty as sin — ostentatious, pretentious sin.
How could I use all those big words on that nice old couple who'd never got further than the sixth grade. Shame on me!
Even worse, this isn't the first time folks who have my best interests at heart have tried to break me of my sesquipedalian tendencies. ( Sesquipedalian? I'm hopeless.)
To quote good ol' Speed, who lowers my ears periodically at the Town and Country barber shop and debating society here in Little Rock. "I'm wearin' out my Webster's readin' you."
If I were to utter a word in my defense, doubtless a long one, I'd ask if it was really fair to reel off all those heavyweight words without the surrounding sentences. Context can be all in such matters. And I just couldn't think of a better way to convey the odd impression left by Henry Kissinger, the Metternich of American foreign policy, when he appeared side by side with a nice boy from Arkansas like Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff. Talk about the odd couple:
"Henry Kissinger . . . was an almost kindly presence as he rose to speak at the annual meeting, luncheon and pep talk of Little Rock's chamber of commerce. He was here doubtless at the behest of his business partner Mack (the Nice) McLarty, who is as Southern Proper as Heinz Alfred Kissinger is teutonically didactic."
Still, my critic had a point. The question at issue: Should a columnist use the word he thinks best, even if it has a Brylcreem shine to it, or tone it down to a sixth-grade level, the way they taught us in journalism school? (By now it's probably fourth-grade level at the rate literacy in this country is going, going, gone.)
But look at it this way: Who am I to assume that the white-haired couple down the street who went no further than the sixth grade are still at a sixth-grade level of comprehension after a lifetime of loyal reading?
Isn't there something insulting to my elders about such condescension? Shouldn't I be doing the best I can to convey my thoughts as precisely as I can, not dumbing them down? (Surely my thoughts are dumb enough already.)
And what about all those bright young people out there, and those folks with a vocabulary far superior to mine? The least I owe them — and readers in general — is the best I can do. Better to use the uncommon word that fits than the common one that doesn't quite capture the meaning you're after,
In the end, I have to side with Mark Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug."
My respects to those on the other side of the issue. I know they're just trying to cure me of my incurable logophilia. They can be more than kind. For example, my faithful critic signed off with words that are music to any newspaperman's ears: "Still your daily reader . . . ."
It was a reminder that not all the cleverness in the world can be as welcome as a little charity.
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