I wrote an article in the most recent American Copy Editors Society newsletter on the use of big words in newspaper articles. I'm reprinting it below. I'm also using it to introduce a new regular feature, which I hope to run every Monday, highlighting good and bad uses of big words in the news, which I have already been doing sporadically. That will begin next week.
Here's the article:
The word peloton glowed on my screen, daring me to challenge its use in a story about a bicycle race I was editing on a slow Sunday evening in July. I looked it up: "n. the main body of riders in a bicycle race." I highlighted it. My finger hovered over the delete key; I was ready to replace it with "pack."
Then I remembered something that an editor told me during one of my internships after I complimented his use of the word freebooters in an editorial about crooked politicians or some others of their ilk.
"I think it's good to send the readers to the dictionary once in a while," he said.
I hadn't thought of that. I knew what a freebooter was.
Now, a few years later, I was being sent to the dictionary. It sounds like a punishment, but I don't think it has to be, as long as the word is being used for a good reason.
Good use: A quote about Russia's incursion into Georgia in the Washington Post contained the word revanchist (for a policy of "revenge, especially a usually political policy designed to recover lost territory or status").
Bad use: Saying circumgyrate when rotate will do.
The difference is that revanchist captures a larger idea that takes a baker's dozen of words to express. Circumgyrate is a cool word, but it's just a longer, more obscure version of another single word.
Also, peloton and revanchist were being used in articles more likely to be read by people who already knew the word or who would be motivated to look it up.
Peloton came in our third day of coverage of a national road race not many people had heard of. Most of the people who read that story were likely to be dedicated sports junkies or big cycling fans.
The Post used the revanchist quote, without explanation, in a story on A14 three weeks into the conflict. Again, a story that plays more to the interests of junkies, in this case those addicted to politics and international affairs.
I think that by not editing out words like these in a story when they are appropriate, copy editors can provide a little reward for readers who know the word and for readers who are curious enough to grab their dictionary. (The New York Times' Web site has a built-in feature that makes this easy. Double-click a word, and a screen with a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary pops up. I think every newspaper should have this.)
This isn't a call to obfuscate and vex (OK, confuse and annoy) readers by using big words all the time. But there's nothing wrong with using a specialized word in context once in a while.