I like this analogy — the five-dollar word — because it can easily be extended to demonstrate a depressing, but absolutely inarguable, point. Samuel Clemens wrote his most popular work between 1880 and 1890. According to this inflation calculator, five bucks in 1890 is equivalent to about $130 today. Looked at another way, five dollars in 2017 has the spending power of nineteen cents in 1890.
So let’s take a look at the “home-equity loan” paragraph referred to by the above commenter and see what effect the inflation of illiteracy, which has proceeded in lockstep with the inflation of the currency, has done to make my relatively prosaic prose so precociously pricey.
This is the offensive paragraph, taken from the beginning of R&T’s PCOTY test:
The sun has become staccato, a stippled Dopplering twinkle through a fast-forward canopy of trees, accelerated from a single scene into a 24-frame-per-second motion picture by the Porsche 911 Turbo S and the politely muted howl of its 580-hp twin-turbo flat-six.
Certainly this is a paragraph written for effect, but the effect is mostly rhythmic, not pedagogic. There’s nothing in that paragraph that strikes me as terribly recherche. Let’s assume for a moment, however, that I’m not a reliable source for judging the obscurity of my own writing. Let’s go to Wiktionary, which publishes a list of the ten thousand most commonly used words. Supposedly, these words account for ninety-seven percent of movie scripts, or something like that. I am reliably told by the Internet that high school students know about 12,000 “word families” and college graduates know about 17,000 “word families”, so if you are in the top 10,000 you should be readable by any adult with even a casual or interrupted education.
The following words in my paragraph do not appear in the common 10,000:
staccato stippled Dopplering Porsche turbo
“Porsche” and “turbo” can be considered common knowledge to anybody who would pick up a car magazine, so let’s focus on the others.
staccato: If you took a grade-school music class you should know what this means. Even if you don’t, the vaguely onomatopoeic nature of the word should allow you to cruise past it. Sta-ca-to!
stippled: I think that most adults should know what “stippled” means. It’s used widely across disciplines.
Dopplering: If you are reading a magazine about cars, you should have an idea of what the Doppler effect is. They teach the word in fifth grade and it’s on every television news station: “Let’s Go To The Triple Doppler Chopper Radar!”
I find it personally hard to believe that anybody who might be even peripherally in the market for a $100,000 performance car would have genuine trouble reading that paragraph. Honestly, you can argue that what follows a little bit afterwards requires a higher standard of vocabulary:
Distant in my mirrors I see the Lotus Evora, its gaping maw hunting creases on the broken pavement under braking, then lifting just a bit as it finds grip at corner exit. There are rules we follow on these drives, and one of the rules is that you maintain visual contact with the car behind you. So far, I have followed the spirit of the law, if not its letter. But the teenager in me, the afternoon-detention troublemaker who surreptitiously thumbed through the pages of this magazine when he was supposed to be paying attention in his high-school literature class, chafes at this and every other rubric laid upon me by entities as diverse as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Newton himself.
Wordsworth tells us that the child is father of the man. So how can I reject the demands of that careless, causeless 16-year-old rebel whose ancestral decisions set me on the path to being behind the wheel of this very car at this very moment? With the flick of a left-hand paddle, I snag third gear, pin the throttle to the stop, and let the Turbo’s locomotive torque complete the jump to hyperspace. Goodbye, Evora. Goodbye, rules.
Here, surely, is a tar pit to entwine the saurian imbecile: “maw”, “surreptitiously”, “rubric”, “entities”, “Wordsworth”, “ancestral”, “locomotive”, “hyperspace”. But if you are merely uneducated, rather than stupid by genetic inheritance, I think you can figure out most of this without knowing the meaning of all the words. These are not really “five-dollar words” by Mark Twain’s measurement.
For comparison, here’s a paragraph from a Mark Twain essay:
Thus we have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover the secret of God that our difficulties disappear. It was always so. In antique Roman times it was the custom of the Deity to try to conceal His intentions in the entrails of birds, and this was patiently and hopefully continued century after century, although the attempted concealment never succeeded, in a single recorded instance. The augurs could read entrails as easily as a modern child can read coarse print. Roman history is full of the marvels of interpretation which these extraordinary men performed. These strange and wonderful achievements move our awe and compel our admiration. Those men could pierce to the marrow of a mystery instantly. If the Rosetta-stone idea had been introduced it would have defeated them, but entrails had no embarrassments for them. Entrails have gone out, now—entrails and dreams. It was at last found out that as hiding-places for the divine intentions they were inadequate.
You will search in vain through the Wiktionary Top Ten Thousand for: “entrails”, “augurs”, “marrow”, and “Rosetta-stone”. In other words, Mark Twain’s work was roughly as hard to read as mine is, particularly when he was writing to an adult audience rather than the tween-agers who might be expected to go nuts over “Tom Sawyer”.
You might think that all of the above amounts to a severe overreaction on my part to an off-handed online remark. Perhaps it is, but I can easily explain my ardor in this cause. There are plenty of writers who try to impress their readers with their vocabulary. I am not one of them. For better or worse, I grew up reading, and speaking, a dialect that was thickly clotted with the polysyllabic and obscure. I learned a long time ago never to speak my truest mind to anybody; if you are having a conversation with me, you are being actively filtered to what I think you can understand.
Which is not to say that I think I am smarter than everybody else. I just had a wider and deeper exposure to the written English word. If I am speaking to a materials engineer or a mathematician about something in his speciality, I expect him to filter for me and I do not feel diminished by that. The conversational flow in my head is a torrent of associated metaphor, poetry, quotes from antiquity, rap lyrics, and other flotsam that wouldn’t make sense to anybody but me. What you get is the regulated, docile stream at the cloaca of a massive hydroelectric dam. It’s better for both of us that way.
To my immense sorrow, I’m already seeing the same thing happen to my son. He asks, “Would you like to hear about how I learned X, Y, and Z?” He’s already learned that most people don’t want to hear what is in his head, all his logical deductions and inferences, his eleven-steps-to-checkmate understanding of things. He asks first. I want to tell him that he does not have to ask his own father before he speaks about something that interests him, but I also know the effort of will and sum of misery that it cost him to put that filter in to begin with.
I use several defined subsets of my personal vocabulary for different audiences. If you are reading this webpage, you are getting the most complicated and extensive set of words that I provide anywhere, because the vast majority of Riverside Green readers are educated, intellectually active men. (Yes, it’s almost always men.) TTAC readers get a simplified version of this vocabulary. When I choose words for R&T, I rarely use anything that a reasonably intelligent high-school senior could not be expected to know. In the case of my PCOTY article, this score page says it is “Grade 11.70”.
Still, I understand why the Jalopnik reader in the quote that opens this article is upset and/or offended by what I write. Here’s Jonny Lieberman, writing last week about the Chevrolet SS:
I’d choose the SS over ATS-V and M3 any day. The new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, well, that’s very close to being better than the SS. I have no doubt that the 505-hp Italian is more capable than the SS—I won’t even bother with all the numbers, just trust me here—but capability is not the same thing as driving pleasure. This concept trips people up. Just because something can catapult itself to 60 mph quicker than something else doesn’t mean it is the better car. It just means it’s quicker. Having spent plenty of time with both machines, there’s a sweetness to the SS on a back road that is not quite there with the Alfa. Think of it as a cherry on top. That’s the difference. The Giulia Q is fantastic, whereas the Chevy is fantastic plus more. What about sport sedans in the 5 Series class? Again, the SS wins. Even as performance-biased as these beasts are—and we’re talking CTS-V, RS7, E63, M5—not one of them is as satisfying to drive or as much fun as the Chevy SS. Yup, even with all that extra power. I should note that the BMW M5 can be had in the U.S. with a six-speed manual, but I’d still take the SS.
Mr. Lieberman violates the Rule Of Ten Thousand just once, with “catapult”, trusting that his World-Of-Warcraft-addicted readers will know what a catapult is. And he is very good about using the simplest words possible, even if he repeats himself. “Better” appears multiple times. “Quicker” appears twice in a row. He has a knack of double-hammering you with a word in succession, just so you don’t accidentally wander away from the point.
Some of what he writes is frankly illiterate: “Having spent plenty of time with both machines, there’s a sweetness to the SS on a back road” implies that the SS, not Jonny, has spent plenty of time with both machines. Some of it appears to be written with five-year-olds in mind: “The Giulia Q is fantastic, whereas the Chevy is fantastic plus more.” Eat your Cheerios, Billy; they are fantastic plus more! Worst of all, his sentence about “beasts” makes very little sense; having just told you that capability and fun are not directly related, he then pretends to contradict himself with an “Even” before returning to his well-worn track. One might as well write, “Even as calorie-laden as these beasts are — and we’re talking Quarter Pounder, Whopper — not one of them is as tasty to eat or as enjoyable to chew as Beluga caviar.”
Yet although Jonny is frequently incoherent at the atomic level, his article as a whole is very easy for an ADD-addled Millennial to digest one iScreen of text at a time. It’s a monotonous, almost tribal repetition of GOOD and FUN and FAST and GOOD and FAST and FUN. The only precision in the writing comes when it is time to discuss minor variations in quarter-mile time that might well be down to atmospheric-pressure variations or a headwind. This modern cocktail of kindergarten word-salad mixed with measurement beyond significant digits has become the incontrovertible fashion of automotive writing and to digress from it is to court disaster. The same score utility that marks PCOTY as Grade 11.70 marks Jonny as Grade 8.74. This makes rough sense: you can start off high school reading Motor Trend and by the time you go to college you can switch to Road&Track.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that most of the media that people consume nowadays is written for eighth-graders at best. So when they encounter something that is not written for eighth-graders, it makes them nervous, which makes them desirous of finding fault in the author rather than in the reader. I do not, and will not, apologize for not targeting my creative efforts at the lowest common denominator. Nor am I going to change. If the day comes that my outlets require me to write in the Lieberman Style, I’ll simply resign and go back to a proper, dignified job like working at Wendy’s as a burger-flipper. There are a million eighth-grade stories in the naked auto-journo city, and a handful of even slightly erudite men attempting to write something just a little bit better. The fellow who whines about my “five-dollar” words is basically attempting to serve as a volunteer version of Diana Moon Glampers, Kurt Vonnegut’s infamous Handicapper General. I DON’T READ THESE WORDS EVERY DAY ON GAWKER SO THEY MUST BE BAD TAKE THE BAD MAN AWAY MOMMY HIS WORDS ARE HURTING MY TUMMY.
Which brings us to a question: If Mark Twain and I write at about the same level of complexity, and Twain griped about people who did not, what did he mean? Well, why don’t we take these paragraphs written by Samuel Johnson as an example. His essay “On Procrastination” was a first draft written in his drawing room while the copy-boy from the printer waited. He did not even bother to read it once; having written the last sentence, he handed it directly to the copy-boy.
Thus life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd. Our firmness is by the continual contemplation of misery hourly impaired; every submission to our fear enlarges its dominion; we not only waste that time in which the evil we dread might have been suffered and surmounted, but even where procrastination produces no absolute increase of our difficulties, make them less superable to ourselves by habitual terrors. When evils cannot be avoided, it is wise to contract the interval of expectation; to meet the mischiefs which will overtake us if we fly; and suffer only their real malignity without the conflicts of doubt and anguish of anticipation.
To act is far easier than to suffer; yet we every day see the progress of life retarded by the vis inertiae, the mere repugnance to motion, and find multitudes repining at the want of that which nothing but idleness hinders them from enjoying. The case of Tantalus, in the region of poetic punishment, was somewhat to be pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired from his hand; but what tenderness can be claimed by those who, though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tantalus, will never lift their hands for their own relief?
The same index that gives me an 11.70 and Jonny an 8.74 gives Johnson… wait for it… 24.76. Since there is no actual program for 24.76 years of formal education in this country, one has to assume that the algorithm just went off the rails when confronted with Johnson’s prose. Yet there were once plenty of men in the Western world who could read and comprehend such an essay in the same short space of time that it required in the composition.
I doubt that Mark Twain envisioned the degree to which a five-dollar word, or a five-dollar bill, could sink in this present and degraded age. It is a process not yet ended. My son’s generation will look on what I write with the same slack-jawed incomprehension that the Oppositelock crowd would display if exposed to Samuel Johnson. Can you imagine the Motor Trend of the year 2045?
REEL GUD CAMERO TELZ REEL GUD MUSTANK TO GO OUTSIDE NEAR DOOR FOR POOPING ROOM!
Is there no way to stop it? No way to beat back the tide? Brother, can you spare a five-dollar word?