50-Cent Words Are No Bargain

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Those of us who take an interest in changes in contemporary language are in a condition not unlike that of the village idiot of Frampol, a shtetl in Poland. He was assigned the job of waiting at the gates for the Messiah and was told: The pay is low but the work is steady.

Thus with three minutes left in a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, LeBron James hits a 3-pointer, causing the announcer to note that “the score is 89-85, a 4-point differential.” But is it a “differential”? Cars have differentials and some equations are differentials, but do basketball or other sports scores have differentials? Why not instead use the simple word “difference?” What attracts this announcer, and lots of other sports announcers, to the word “differential”?

The same thing, I suppose, that attracts television news anchors and newspaper journalists to the word “replicate,” when duplicate or copy will do nicely. The same people are also likely to reach for replicate’s hazy neighbor “recalibrate,” when what they have in mind is usually nothing more than “reconsider.” While I’m at it, when did the word “multiple” come to replace the simpler words “several” or “many”? Perhaps, my guess is, around the time that “definitively,” a word meaning decisively and authoritatively, was mistakenly thought to be merely a more emphatic version of “definitely.”

Another semantic casualty is the useful word “disinterested,” meaning impartial, above faction, fair-minded—long confused with “uninterested.” The loss here, though not intentional, is serious. With the true meaning of the word disinterested lost, so is the worthy ideal, and soon, too, those rare men and women who wish to embody it.

H.L. Mencken mocked Warren Harding for promising a return to “normalcy,” when normal or normality would have worked, but apparently more than mockery was needed to put this awkwardly pretentious word out of use. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought “normalcy” back with a relentlessness that ought to put a cringe on the face of the whole human race.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

8 thoughts on “50-Cent Words Are No Bargain”

  1. Prescriptive writing advice is prescriptive.

    (The number one feedback I get from readers and reviewers is ‘I always learn new words from this author and it’s exciting’).

    • It is rare that a new word comes across my eyes, so it is very exciting when that happens!

      Usually slang, though, and commonly British – a post by PG the other day introduced me to “gazump.” What a lovely word! I’m working on using it in my speech; unfortunately, there are a great number of instances these days where it is completely appropriate.

      • Now that I’ve realized how many of my readers love new words, I try to make sure to include at least one that’s new to me in every book. (I learn a lot, looking for new words! So I have fun too.)

  2. Sometimes the big/obscure word is the only word.
    Especially for dialog.
    Ditto for slang.
    Style nazis seem to think everybody writes for literature class.

    (And replicate has a very different meaning and usage than duplicate or copy. Especially in reverse engineering or clean room design. Does speak well of the op.)

    • “Does *not* speak well of the OP.
      Ditto for objecting to recalibrate.

      The OP objects to terms than in many instances are the superior choice for clarity and precision.

        • Well, the cited use of “recalibrate” in the context of the new post-pandemic normal is appropriate.

          And people today are acquainted with the term in other contexts. You’d have to be pretty isolated to be unaware of the term “calibrate” since it isart of proper setup of TVs and other gadgets.

          We’ve been through this before anyway: english is a living language and people
          will use it as they will, not as the ivory tower traditionalists(?) demand. It is best to jusf keep an ear out and go with the flow, even if it inflicts things like “disrespect”.

  3. This is could, with only minor word substitutions, have been published any time in the past two centuries. The difference today is that we have two centuries of these tracts to show us how pointless they are.

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