Sunday, February 06, 2005

Ten Dollar Words

An employee of mine often asks me why I use 'ten dollar words' when I speak or write. I don't, actually. I get my words wholesale and they cost me, at best, about a buck and a half. Even after my greedy capitalist mark-up, they are really only two dollar words. I don't recall ever using the words "psittaceous" or "concupiscent," either in conversation, or in anything I have ever written. Now those are at least seven dollar words. I can see no circumstance in which I might ever use the former, but I do like the latter and plan to use it at my earliest convenience.

OK, so I'm joking around again. In fact, the words I use don't even cost me a buck and a half. Even a condensed dictionary, often on sale for five bucks or less at any discount store, must holds 20,000 words or so. Now, whether I use new math or old (does anyone old enough to remember the transition, from one to the other in the sixties, read this blog?) to make the calculation, it appears to work out to about .00025 cents per word. But most words in any dictionary never actually get used in normal conversation, so if I use only ten percent of the words in a typical condensed dictionary, the cost per word would still only be .0025 cents.

Nowadays, you can also get the definition of any word via internet-based dictionary services like The service is free, if you don't mind a few ads on the page trying to sell you something. I have no idea how many words are defined on these services, but if you divide any number of words into zero, you are going to get a cost per word of what? I'm no mathematical genius, using either new math or old, but I am pretty sure the answer is zero.

Completely free words? No cost, no obligation, no salesman will call? Really?


So anyone can write letters and emails and blog entries using so-called ten dollar words with zero cost per word?


So why the hell are so few people taking advantage of this incredible bargain? I, for one, would sure love to read sentences more often, using words that aren't geared to pre-teens.

I admired Ernest Hemingway's writing, his use of relatively simple sentences and words of few syllables. Here, for example, is a paragraph from The Old Man and the Sea:

'The old man had seen many great fish. He had seen many that weighed more than a thousand pounds and he had caught two of that size in his life, but never alone. Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had even seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was still as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle.'

Not bad.

I adored Charles Dickens, because of his complex sentences and yes, his ten dollar words. Here, the first paragraph of Dicken's Tale of Two Cities:

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all doing direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Give me Dickens any day.

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