HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Ken Doctor: “Rosewater,” cascading censorship, and press freedom
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
July 27, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

NYTimes.com’s most looked-up words for 2011 are…even more morose than last year’s list

Hubris, feckless, dyspeptic, blasphemy, cronyism, and the other words that confused Times readers most in the first half of 2011.

One of the cooler-but-lesser-known functions of NYTimes.com is its word “look up” feature: Double-click on any word in the text of an article — insouciance, say, or omertà — and a little question mark will pop up. Click the question mark, and you’ll get a definition of the highlighted word directly from the American Heritage Dictionary.

Since 2009, the Times’ analytics department has been tracking the words that its users look up via the feature; this week, it released results for the first half-and-change of 2011. And they are…multisyllabic. And esoteric. And anything but perfunctory.

They are also pretty…depressing. Though journalism, as an institution, isn’t especially renowned for its sunny outlook on the world, it’s still remarkable how pessimistic and generally morose (hubris! feckless! dyspeptic!) the looked-up words tend to be. While they’re nothing, of course, like a representative sample of all the words used in the Times — they don’t account for NYT blog posts, for one thing, but mostly they represent only the words that have confused people and/or sparked their interest enough to lead to a click — the negativity here is noteworthy nonetheless. If a newspaper is a cultural product, a nation talking to itself and all that, then the preponderance of profligacy and hauteur and duplicity and blasphemy on the list doesn’t bode terribly well for our collective conversation. If some future civilization were to come across the Times’ list and assume it’s representative of The Times We Live In, they’d probably feel sorry for us. Or, you know, schadenfreudically avuncular.

The negativity is a trend, actually; Josh pointed out the same thing for last year’s list. And it’s worth noting, too, the tension that the words represent: the classic disconnect between respecting readers’ intelligence by challenging it…and giving them a pleasant reading experience. The line between education and pretension — for the Times, in particular, which aspires to an intellectualism that is, first and foremost, accessible — is a thin one. “As always, we should remember that our readers are harried and generally turn to us for news, not SAT prep,” the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip Corbett, notes. At the same time, though, as one commenter put it, “This is why I love this newspaper: It not only dispenses the news, it keeps me on my toes and prods me to keep my literary silverware polished and my linguistic cutlery honed. :-D”

Anyway, we’ve listed the looked-up words on a spreadsheet, above, if you want to play around with the set. (“This year, we arranged the list by how many times a word was looked up per use, rather than by total number of look-ups,” Corbett notes. “That highlights the most baffling words of all.”) If you notice anything interesting about them, let us know.

POSTED     July 27, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Ken Doctor: “Rosewater,” cascading censorship, and press freedom
As the year ends, take a moment to look past business models and apps and think about how you can help the challenged cause of press freedom worldwide.
Bad community is worse than no community
“By coupling a format that encourages intimacy with a network design that encourages out-of-context amplification, Twitter has evolved into something fundamentally volatile.”
More data, fewer questions
“Do You Know Your Data?”
What to read next
845
tweets
Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories
At least in certain contexts, WhatsApp is a truly major traffic driver — bigger even than Facebook. Should there be a WhatsApp button on your news site?
429What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out
“Nobody has to read you. You have to earn that. You have to respect people’s attention.”
343Come work for Nieman Lab
We have an opening for a staff writer in our Cambridge newsroom.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Craigslist
Tumblr
CBS News
The Wall Street Journal
Tribune Publishing
Frontline
New York
InvestigateWest
The Miami Herald
NPR
AOL
Current TV