September 02, 2010
Words Rare, Misunderstood and Misused
WRIGHT, Wyoming (SmallTownPapers) -- Either American reading ability has vastly improved or present day journalists are ignoring a basic rule of journalism.
The English language is the largest in the world with some 650,000 words, 200,000 more than the next largest language. Obviously no one person knows the definition of each and every English word, forget how to spell them. A dictionary listing every English word will run about 10 volumes long. Not even the large dictionaries most often found in libraries come close to containing all English words. Those who study such things say the typical person will recognize about 10,000 words?recognizing is not necessarily the same thing as knowing them. We might ever actually use some 5,000 words, but in ordinary speech and writing, we employ only 1,000 words. Interestingly, I have been told the Cheyenne language consists only of 1,000 words. The native Americans didn't need more words, and generally we don't use more words.
Education really makes little difference. While a person with a PhD degree will recognize more words and in academic writings employ more words, even the PhD holder in ordinary speech and writing uses pretty much the same 1,000 words the rest of us do. Journalism knows that, thus aspiring reporters are taught in journalism school to write for people with an 8th grade reading ability. Since many journalists have at least bachelor degrees, that involves some unlearning ' for journalism students and entering reporters. Editors delight in dressing down cub reporters for using "fancy two-bit words." However, a word does not have to multiple syllables to be incomprehensible or nearly so.
I had an experience recently where I ran into a word I recognized. A headline declared "The feckless Fed." Since I have little interest in the Federal Reserve Bank and its governors, I skipped over it to other things, but I kept going back to that headline. It bothered me. I had some sense of the word's meaning. Anything that is "less" can't be all that good, but the more I pondered on it, the more I realized here was a word I had seen before?and had no idea what it really means. I broke the word down trying to dredge up its meaning. "Feck" would be the main part of the word, so if something can be "feckless," it should follow that something can be "feck-ful." No such luck. In fact, the desk size dictionary I use doesn't list "feck-ful" as a word. I realized I had no idea what "feck" is.
Obviously "feck" is something good against which something that is "feckless" is bad, but what does either word mean? And to the point, if I don't know what it means, why did a headline writer use it? I can be pretty certain the column writer would know better than to use an obscure word like that.
So I broke down to look the word up, discovering immediately it is a Scottish word. Well, now, I am of Scottish background, but that's no help, because my Scottish forebears left Scotland, not all that willingly, back in the 1600's because of a wee bit of a disagreement with King James, the 6th of Scotland, the 1st of England and because of that disagreement, we have little use for the King James Bible. "Feckless" might have been one of the kinder descriptions my forebears had about King James. "Feck" means "value," and as used in that headline, "feckless" means "irresponsible." If it means "irresponsible," why didn't the headline just say so? We all know that word.
Since I did not actually read the column, maybe I am too quick assuming the author did not use "feckless." I was reading another column and came across a swipe at "desultory" young people. That sounds as perhaps the young people are being accused of something naughty, a gossipy sort of business. It again is a word I recognize, but had no idea what it means. Until this column, I myself have never used either "feckless" or "desultory." Having convinced myself that the word was pointing to something really juicy, I was disappointed when I looked the word up. It simply means "without purpose, aimless." Again why didn't the author use that then? We understand "aimless." We understand '^purposeless." Desultory? Have you ever once used that word either in oral or written communication?
Writers ordinarily don't make the mistake of using words readers would likely not understand. We, and I include myself, however, do have a penchant to use
words we ourselves may little understand?or are using more according to how they sound than how they are spelled and by what they mean. Sometimes writing under deadline pressures, we don't take the time to proofread what we write. Other times, well, sometimes our minds simply go on vacation. Where we really get ourselves into trouble is when two or more words sound somewhat similar, such as the writer who wrote at some length about "liable." The writer meant "libel." A writer better know the difference lest the writer be liable for libel. If one is guilty of libel, one is liable for actual and punitive damages running into the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars.
That is a topic on which I have some direct knowledge. I once was sued for libel, I and the paper I then worked for. My article asserted things as fact which were not so and which ordinarily would have held those about whom I wrote up for public opprobrium. (Sorry, when it comes to libel, we are dealing with legal matters, so the words cannot be simplified too much.) The case was dismissed because the guys who filed it could not prove damages, only libel. But when it comes to libel, even truth is not a defense. Truth is only a mitigating factor that might lighten damage and penalty awards. Malice is a huge determining factor in libel cases. An "egregious" disregard for the truth can triple, even quadruple, the libel-er's liability?the damages assessed against the erring writer and the writer's publication. Contempt for the implications of one's writings also begs for large cash awards. Even "only" opinion can be libelous. Writers should not be trying to determine how feckless they can be in their writings, but how feckful.
Before the case was dismissed, the paper's lawyers gave me a crash and extensive course in libel law. No more than you would play around with a loaded pistol with the safety off should a writer play around, pushing things to see how far he can go before being guilty of libel. Some libels, yes, here in America, are criminal libels and the offending writer can go to prison for libel. Wyoming does not have a criminal libel law, but most of the neighboring states do. If one is bound and determined to push the limits to see how much one can get away with before winding up sued for libel, one really should take the time to learn state libel laws and how the courts have applied those libel laws. Even winning a libel case is expensive. There are few libel lawyers and they come dearly, and they charge more the more guilty the accused libeler is. Courts are very protective of private citizens, courtesy courts tend not to extend to public figures depending just how public they are. Were I to libel the mayor (forget that he is one of the owners of this paper and that would never get printed!), he would win a libel suit?provided he wanted to sue his own paper as well. If I libel the President, as is done every day, well, Presidents tend to be fair game. However, if even a President could prove damages from libelous writings, a President can pursue a successful libel suit. Movie and television stars about whom there is infinite gossip have very successfully sued for and collected from libel suits.
But here I am complaining that journalists use words not in common usage, not among the 1,000 we all use. I just said "penchant" and now I am asking myself what does that mean? The way I used it, I had in mind that I have a "tendency" to write certain ways. Fortunately, the dictionary will let me get away with defining "penchant" that way. If that is what the word means, why didn't I say "tendency"? Shame on me for using such a word. I should have opprobrium poured over my head! What does opprobrium smell like? Hint, it isn't a perfume. It stinks, period. It really stinks up the one dishing it out.
Copyright 2010 High Plains Sentinel, Wright, Wyoming. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.
© 2013 High Plains Sentinel Wright, Wyoming. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers.