Writers often are told never to use a big word when a small one will do. We’re told to aim for an eighth-grade reading level (that’s middle school, not even high school). But that’s a guideline or rule, not a law, so you will see and hear big words in news stories fairly regularly. Each year the New York Times prints a list of the words that its online readers have had the most trouble with, as measured by their use of the site’s dictionary function, and the 2011 version of the list provides, as usual, some examples of why you can’t always tell what the typical reader is going to consider to be a word beyond his or her everyday understanding. For instance, at No. 10 is “recognizance.” Really, recognizance? One would think many of those who didn’t learn the word in school at least had heard it used in a sentence by the judge explaining that they were being released on their own. (Along those same lines: “incarcerated” appears at No. 42.) And at No. 22: “cronyism.” Cronyism?! I cannot, as an editor, ask a writer to avoid using “cronyism” when confronted with a case of someone important surrounding himself with unqualified friends and supporters instead of people who know what they are doing. What would you say instead that takes
less fewer than 16 words? And No. 49: “juggernaut.” What, did people think this was like a space program to send explorers into the jugger?
Sometimes I have sympathy — just a little — for the point of view of one writer years ago who opined (verb, meaning he expressed an opinion) that God forbid readers should have to grab a dictionary. “A what?” Exactly.
The Nieman Journalism Lab has loaded the words and stats into a spreadsheet, if you want to take a closer look at them in a different order than the Times presented them.