Encomiums and Deprecations | Almost late edition

Every Monday, Talk Wordy to Me discusses newspapers' uses of big or obscure words in Encomiums and Deprecations. An encomium is glowing and warmly enthusiastic praise. A deprecation is an expression of disapproval.

Hey, it's still Monday! Check the time stamp. Sorry, been a bit busy today. I'll try to find more diverse examples next week, too. I've been reading a lot of New York Times the past week.


To the New York Times Magazine for the word sobriquet in William Safire's On Language column. Safire often explores words that are in vogue in the news, in this case in this year's election news. The whole piece is interesting, but I enjoyed sobriquet, which he used just as a part of the article, not one of the ones he was exploring:

This year, Gov. Sarah Palin modernized the soccer mom with the hockey mom and the Wal-Mart mom. (That chain has a great euphemism for the guy on the way out who makes sure you’re not stealing stuff: the exit greeter.) John McCain brought the unforgotten everyman up to date in the third presidential debate as Joe the Plumber. Suddenly, plumber — a word associated with nefarious leak plugging in the Watergate era — emerged as the ringing sobriquet of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio. This big, bald, salt-of-the-earth fellow, worried about taxes, elicited a damaging answer from a canvassing Barack Obama that concluded, “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

A sobriquet is "a descriptive name or epithet; nickname" according to Merriam-Webster. An epithet is "a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing." Both are apt for Joe the Plumber.


To the New York Times for the word lacunae in a Maureen Dowd column:

It doesn’t wash to cry sexism now any more than it did at the beginning, when the campaign tried to use that dodge to divert attention from Palin’s lacunae in the sort of knowledge you need to run the world. The press has written plenty about the vanities and extravagances of male candidates. (See: Haircuts, John Edwards and Bill Clinton.) Sexism would be to treat Palin differently, or more delicately, than one of the guys.

According to the OED, a lacunae can mean: "1. In a manuscript, an inscription, the text of an author: A hiatus, blank, missing portion.  2. Chiefly in physical science: A gap, an empty space, spot, or cavity." Dowd is using lacunae to mean gap. One of my criteria for giving a big word an encomium is that it be a specialized word that does the work of several words. This doesn't do that. It's just a long word for gap.


To Sports Illustrated for syzygy in an article about "all these nerds winning football games."

In the physics and astronomy department, Keivan Stassun suggested we're in the midst of a syzygy, a rare and portentous alignment of things in the universe. "One of the biggest mysteries in astronomical research is dark energy," he said. "In the last couple years we have clear evidence that there's some kind of force at work that is causing all of the matter of the universe to fly apart in an accelerating way. It seems more than a coincidence that at the same time we've discovered this mysterious force, Commodore football is on a roll. You hear all the time about somebody opening a can of whoop ass on someone. That whoop ass has to come from somewhere. Maybe what we're seeing is a gravitational warping of space-time focusing all that energy on football."

Three different dictionaries I checked give varying definitions for syzygy, but all agree that it is an alignment of the planets, close to the definition Sports Illustrated gives in the story. The article is fairly clever, asking college professors at "smart schools" to explain the success of their football teams, and the use of this specialized astronomy word works here.


To the New York Times for the word triptych in a Studs Terkel obituary:

In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Studs Terkel relied on his enthusiastic but gentle interviewing style to elicit, in rich detail, the experiences and thoughts of ordinary Americans. “Division Street: America” (1966), his first best-seller and the first in a triptych of tape-recorded works, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression”(1970) and “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”(1974). “ ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War II,” won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

A triptych is "1: an ancient Roman writing tablet with three waxed leaves hinged together. 2 a: a picture (as an altarpiece) or carving in three panels side by side b: something composed or presented in three parts or sections; especially : trilogy," according to Merriam-Webster. I have two problems with how this was used. One, it was probably being used to mean trilogy, so it's a more obscure single word being used to replace a common word. Two, even if it was being used as a metaphor that the works hung together, what is the triptych? The next two sentences list three more books and it isn't clear which, if any, are the companions to Division Street. All three can't be, since that's four total books. You're left scratching your head.