« We saw what you wrote; we know who you are | Main | Who will guard the grammarians? »

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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:57 PM | | Comments (4)


I'm with you on this--that's a fantastic headline for Mr. Buckley's obit!

If one heeds the wisdom that a written piece's vocabulary should be keyed to its target audiences, every single example you've listed is appropriate. While hard-news headlines should be accessible and not send people running for their dictionaries (or skipping right past to the next article), the audience that would follow the stories you listed here wouldn't mind looking up a word they didn't know already.

So maybe the Buckley headline didn't fit the old saw about newspapers needing to be written no higher than the eighth grade level. Now more than every, newspapers also need to appeal to a broad audience, including those on both sides of that eighth-grade marker. If it's OK for newspapers to diversify appeal through kids pages, puzzles, sports, and stock reports in addition to traditional "news," why not vary language similarly?

At the San Diego Union-Tribune, we used "perspicacious" in our Buckley obit headline. I don't know what it means, but I'm pretty sure that's kinda the point.

Well, now that I see that it's OK to cherry-pick examples out of context to make points, I'll be sure to put that device to work with greater regularity.

Just because other publications have used the word doesn't make it any less alienating to their readers than The Times' use is to ITS readers.

Nice try, John, but I remain unswayed.

In response to Jim, shouldn't readers be challenged - isn't that what reading is all about?

Why are we hell-bent on pandering to lazy readers?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected