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Simple language just isn't as thrilling

Does a spell-checker obviate the need for an amanuensis?

Mary Schmich

December 5, 2012

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I was talking with a friend the other day about the movie "Lincoln," and I mentioned that although the film wasn't perfect, it avoided the trap of hagiography.

This literary gentleman gave me a quizzical look.

"Of what?" he said.

I assumed he was making fun of me. Had I mispronounced the word? Mumbled it? Maybe it sounded un peu prétentieux?

"Hagiography," I said.

When his forehead furrowed again, I felt a jolt of disbelief: He didn't know what it meant.

Now, this is a guy who knows so much about so many things that when you discover you know something he doesn't, it's, well, it's very supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

But I'm not here today to discuss his vocabulary. Our exchange got me thinking about my own, and how rarely I learn new words these days — "android" and "app" don't count — and how rarely I use the more flamboyant words I do know, or used to know.

I suspect I'm part of a larger trend. In a recent study, some physicists looked at Google's digitized books to see how word use has changed. They concluded words are dying from disuse faster than they ever have.

You could blame email, texting and electronic spell-checkers, all the technology that nudges us toward the short and the familiar. Or blame Ernest Hemingway, who convinced a century of writers that simpler was better.

Whatever the truth is, I know I don't hear or read as wide a range of words as I used to, and consequently don't use as many, or learn many new ones.

When you're young, you gobble up new words, and in my family, we were force-fed. The force didn't come from my mother, a big reader with a vast and musical vocabulary. The force came from my father.

He was not a literary person — I never saw him read a novel — but the dictionary fascinated him the way sports scores did. He revered "vocabulary words" as the building blocks of character. He made his kids read the dictionary aloud, and used it as a disciplinary tool.

"You, Mary Theresa, are an insubordinate child," he once bellowed. "Do you know what 'insubordinate' means?"

"No, sir."

"Look it up. And learn the etymology. Do you know what 'etymology' means?"

"No, sir."

"Look it up. And bring me the definition of both words. Verbatim. Do you know what 'verbatim' means?"

And thus my word garden flourished.

For years, nothing thrilled me more than learning new words just for the pleasure of the sound.

Chimera. Obviate. Amanuensis. Meretricious.

Guided by the principle that if you used a word 10 times it would become your friend for life, I tossed such words into my college papers as breezily as you might scatter birdseed — until the day a professor scribbled, "Please look words up before you use them."

Over time, using words that I rarely heard others use came to seem pointless, like speaking Dutch in Mexico. Using words sniffed at as "ten-dollar words" was like wearing loud pants, something you'd do only if you wanted to stand out obnoxiously from the crowd.

I still get excited, though, when a word I've forgotten pops into view or when I encounter one I don't know, which can happen when you're least expecting it.

"You just don't see that many sesquipedalian writers like William F. Buckley Jr.  in the media anymore," said a colleague to whom I mentioned this topic.

I was thrilled to hear him say that. Why? Because I've never written or spoken the word "sesquipedalian."

And I had to look it up.

mschmich@tribune.com