Obscure word, easy enlightenment

A recent Slate article on President Obama used an interesting word while talking about his approach to rhetoric: "Compared with the black-and-white approach of his predecessor, Obama's technique is practically grisaille. Yet while the nuance is intellectually welcome ... " So from the context, you get the idea that grisaille means something other than black and white. However, the author helpfully includes a link to the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on grisaille: a "painting technique by which an image is executed entirely in shades of gray." The original sentence in Slate looked like this:

  • Compared with the black-and-white approach of his predecessor, Obama's technique is practically grisaille.

I think this is a good way to handle using an obscure word in an online article written for a mass audience. People who are interested can click on the word and find out what it means. People who don't care -- or who already know what grisaille means  -- can keep reading, without an interruption like this:

  • Compared with the black-and-white approach of his predecessor, Obama's technique is practically grisaille -- a painting technique by which an image is executed entirely in shades of gray.

I've said before that I really like the way the New York Times handles this. You can double-click on any word in a Times article, and you get a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary, assuming the AHD has an entry on the word.

The Web is a very powerful tool, and more newspapers and other media, and their writers, should be using it to help their readers. Especially if they like to use big words. Not everyone has a stack of dictionaries or a folder of dictionary bookmarks nearby when they want to get all word nerdy.

Speaking of word nerdy, grisaille comes from the French word gris, which means gray. Gris is adapted from the Old High German grîs (in modern German, greis). There's also the Old Saxon grîs and the Dutch grijs. (All according to the OED.)