The gall to use big words
When The New York Times published William F. Buckley’s obituary on Thursday under the headline “William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right,” there was a quick and largely unanimous reaction from the Testy Copy Editors, on the thread “Could there possibly be a worse headline word?”
I dissented. The word is from the Latin for “foot and a half.” Horace's Ars Poetica gave us sesquipedalia verba, or long words, as a term in criticism. English has used sesquipedalian to describe polysyllabic words and the people who enjoy wielding them since 1615, and the term was used frequently in Buckley’s lifetime to describe him. It was an apt word. If you can’t be a little literary in The New York Times, where else can you?
But my views were a minority of one in that thread.
It turns out that The Times has company in its obscurantism. I’ve selected some examples from the past couple of years, omitting citations from articles about spelling bees and from articles published in Britain and the Commonwealth countries (on the shaky ground that their school systems may yet be turning out more literate readers than the U.S. system).
The Boston Globe, 12/10/06 Headline: The sesquipedalian septuagenarian — That is, Judge Bruce M. Selya of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, who at 72 continues to write perhaps the wittiest and wordiest opinions in the federal judiciary.
Newsday, 2/9/07 Essay by 11th-grader Justin Lashley “While every four-letter word disheartens me, every sesquipedalian rekindles my faith in humanity.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 7/23/06 Headline: Fort Worth officials' sesquipedalian vocabulary
Albuquerque Journal, 5/29/07 Valedictorian Zephra Doerr is listed as being a member of, among other things, the Sesquipedalian Society (book club at Rio Rancho High School)
The Lebanon Daily News (Pennsylvania), 12/30/06 Editorial: “The Keystone state's own walking, talking cornucopia of circumlocution is likely to bring to Harrisburg a certain elevated style of language not seen publicly since the sesquipedalian William F. Buckley held forth on public television.”
The Kentucky Post, 12/31/07 Column by Cindy Starr: “I interviewed ‘the Sesquipedalian,’ a middle school Latin teacher who loved words. ...”
Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, N.J.), 2/19/08 Essay by David Spaulding: “God forbid we require students to open a dictionary to look a new word up and expand their vocabulary. No sesquipedalian words permitted.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/20/06, and The New York Sun, 3/21/06 Paul Greenberg essay: “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.”
It troubles me a little to see my colleagues at other newspapers suggesting that we shouldn’t risk rising to the level of sophistication of The Lebanon Daily News or the East Brunswick Home News Tribune.