A single, distinct, meaningful element of speech

People argue right-brain, left-brain.  I hate (hate) stereotypes. Journalists can’t do math.  Scientists can’t communicate.


I love to communicate and question and write and question.  And question.  And calculate.

Yesterday I tallied the potential combinations of burger options at a local restaurant.  For fun.  It interested me because I knew the number was high.  Over nine million, turns out.

I’ve established my case for numbers, but I love words too.  I have favorites.  I notice my favorites.

K.R. used the word “charlatan” in an email last night.  I enjoy that word – it has a good ring, and it’s in the title of Act II in Green Day’s latest album.

The New York Times has a list of its readers favorite words – or at least the words readers were most curious about.

NYT web analytics put the list together, and it documents the top 50 words in order of how many times readers looked them up while reading a NYT article.

Inchoate” – not fully formed or developed; rudimentary – stormed the field by accruing over 8,100 lookups from Jan. 1 to May 26, 2010.

That shellacked the rest of the field, as “profligacy” – recklessly extravagant – was neither reckless nor extravagant enough, only managing a paltry 6,600.

NYT readers have won my heart with their bronze-medal contender, straight from the streets of Rome.  “Sui generis” – unique; from the literal Latin, of its own kind – pulled third with 5,600 searches.

Why does it matter?

Words are powerful, but the list reads like a GRE verbal-section study guide.

A writer’s awareness of a word’s meaning does not give him or her license to throw it around under a byline.  The list seems to suggest that perhaps even the noble NYT consumers would like a more readable version of the day’s news with their coffee, latte and frappé.

I’m not arguing for journalists to dumb down stories, but we live in a world where we fight for attention.  Prompting readers to grab a dictionary – even if it’s a Google search – may be more time than they have for you and your locutions.

I relish a good, bold word, and I’m sure the capable men and women in New York have their secret list of favorites.

Keep a few more of them secret.

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