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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014 04:40 pm

Searching for the mot juste

 In "What do you mean by that?" I ventured the opinion that "big words"  words are not, like jewelry, mere adornments to the educated, but essential tools that equip us to communicate more clearly with ourselves. 

New Yorker writer John McPhee took up another side of the topic in that magazine's April 29, 2013 issue. He relies on the dictionary -- rather, a dictionary, the old kind, on paper -- to find just the right word. Not, he is careful to point out, to impress readers with his store of recondite words, but to find just the right word (often a simple, short one) for the job. 

The sad fact is that Americans who cheerfully confess to not knowing many big new words don't  actually know many of the familiar old ones either. (McPhee reminds us that perpendicular, vertical and  plumb mean slightly different things.) 

Anyone interested in words, if not writing, will find the piece interesting. It's secreted behind a pay wall, but readers eager to spread the word have posed copies. Don't tell 'em I sent you.

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