February 1, 2023

No News from Doodlebug Island . . . by William F. Jordan


The avidity with which my employee Mark Shockly tackled the grammar texts I assigned him and the mastery he achieved led me to assign him coverage of local news while I handled syndicated material and editorials. But I came to regret my decision when several people stopped me on the street to inquire the meaning of words Mark had used. One person went so far as to swear: “I’ve never seen such vocabulary in my entire life, and I doubt some of those words even exist!”

Now, as editor of the Doodlebug Island Run-on, I’m used to catching the brunt of folk’s criticisms—mostly negative—but no one had ever confronted me regarding word choice, so I took a close look at Mark’s work and found it was a little over the top. To be truthful, it was well over the top. It was, in fact, on par with the extended vocabulary of resident Reginald Waltshire, a former lexicologist for the Oxford English Dictionary and a known lover of obscure words best measured by the pound. I decided I’d have to rein Mark in before he gave subscribers reason to cancel.

So, after lunch, I called him in. “Mark,” I began in my kindest, most fatherly manner, aware that his feelings were involved, and that sensitivity required tact and diplomatic understanding, “would you mind telling me in simple terms what the devil you think you’re doing with all this extraneous vocabulary you’re throwing around? This is a NEWSPAPER not a spawning farm for sesquipedalian wannabees. Do you realize readers are carrying dictionaries with them so they can read what you write, and that half the time they can’t find the words in anything less than an unabridged?”

“But, isn’t it our job to educate, to lift people to higher levels of thinking?” he answered, blythly.

“There’s a fine line between ‘educating’ and ‘informing’, Mark. We’re in the business of informing. You might get by with a multisyllabic word now and again, but simplicity trumps everything in newspaper writing. You use the word ‘propinquity’ when you could simply say, ‘near.’ You talk about a person’s ‘naissance’ or ‘parthenogenesis’ when you could more logically say, ‘birth.’ We print ‘pamphlets’ not ‘enchiridions.’ Sure, you know the use and meanings of these words, and so do many of our readers, but the majority don’t, and they shouldn’t be expected to. There’s a good reason Hemingway outsells Joyce. People want the story, not a vocabulary lesson. The average sentence in a Hemingway work is three-and-a-half words long, told in simple prose. Joyce’s work, on the other hand, often comprises sentences an entire paragraph in length with modifying elements and word choice requiring careful analysis even by the most sophisticated readers. Do you understand what I’m driving at?”

A knowing smile crossed Mark’s face. “Bill, I appreciate the literary lesson, but the truth of the matter is that those multisyllabic words are yours! Oh, I’ve borrowed a few from your learned friends who come in to chat with you, but most of them I’ve heard you use when you’re verbally composing editorials and that end up in your first draft. Words, I might add, that are always accompanied by a rich assortment of profanity.”

“Why,” he continued, “I’ve heard you utter the word ‘palingenetic’ when you were referring to the ‘rebirth’ of the Tea Party; ‘doctrinaire’ when you were describing the ‘impractical’ ideas associated with communism; ‘recondite’ when you were describing ‘obscure or profound’ ideas, Shall I go on? What about words like ‘truncated,’ ‘remonstrate,’ or ‘exogenous’?”

“Thanks for the reminder. ‘Exogenous’ is the very word I need for an editorial I’m writing describing the externally derived legislation being imported to the state by erumpent republicans who can’t wait to carry water for the Koch brothers.”

“I’m glad to be of service. Does that suggest that after I look up the meaning of the word ‘erumpent’ I’m off the hook?”

“Certainly not! It simply means you share guilt with this old country editor. But I believe there’s a solution in your case. From now on, you get paid by the word, and, since that generally means using more and smaller words, you get a pay raise. How does that suit you?”

“Considering the distressed, hapless, and impecunious nature of my finances, a raise would be certainly advantageous, providential, and will provide ataraxic relief.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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