January 19, 2007

Academically powerful words

While Geoff and Eric are listing the words they find most distasteful in titles -- "revisited", "redux", and "whither" for Geoff, "status", "nature", and "role"/"rôle" for Eric, though Eric promises more to come -- Stanford Daily columnist Katie Taylor has been cataloguing the "catchwords of the literati" in a 1/17/07 humor piece.  Taylor thoughtfully provides a Top Ten list of words that you can wield to better your academic life.  There's no overlap (yet) with Geoff's and Eric's lists.

Taylor uses stereotypes about discourse markers to set things up:

Valley girls insert "like" into the holes of their oral communication.  Teenagers include "you know" into [AMZ: "into" probably persevering from "insert into"] many of their dialogues.  Stanford students, however, fill the gaps of their in-class comments with "juxtaposition."

On to some quantitative claims:

Although "juxtaposition" is far and away the most frequently-heard word in fuzzy lectures, discussion sections and all other professor-student interactions, it is just one of the Top 10 Catchwords of the Literati.  The repeated usage of these chosen terms by the upper echelons of intelligentsia transforms them into, essentially, the "you knows" of the tenured track.  To sound smart, you need not learn hundreds of GRE words, or switch your internet homepage to wordaday.com.  In fact, all that is required to impress your peers, professors and oftentimes even yourself is to master the Top 10 list.

Written in increasing order of frequency, the Top Ten Catchwords of the Literati are as follows:
10) Iconoclasm
9) Ubiquitous
8) Paradoxically
7) Subjective/objective
6) Duality
5) Feminist
4) Ironic
3) Dichotomy
2) Race/ethnicity
1) Juxtaposition

... a solid understanding of these 10 words guarantees any student an opportunity to climb up the vocabulary-slinging, multi-syllabic word-dropping, intellectual ladder.  In fact, every title of every book that every Stanford professor has ever published contains one of these words.  Additionally, the statistics further demonstrate that every A paper includes on average six words from the Top 10 list, while the average B paper contains merely three to four.

(You might have wondered about those fuzzy lectures and so on.  This is not a reference to furriness or to fuzzy logic or woolly thinking.  Here on The Farm there's a distinction between fuzzy subjects, students, jobs, etc. and techie -- sometimes "techy" -- ones.  It's, roughly, humanities, arts, and the social sciences vs. the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.  We take these things seriously here.  Why, a while back our Anthropology department split into a fuzzier department, Cultural and Social Anthropology, and a techier one, Anthropological Sciences.)

Some of these words people have been criticizing for decades; "dichotomy" and "ubiquitous", in particular, are often seen as words for pseuds (people "with pretensions to cultural or intellectual sophistication", as Wordspy puts it).  Somewhat surprisingly, not one of the ten, even these two or "juxtaposition", is in Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dimwit's Dictionary, a collection of 5,000 words Fiske deems to be "overused".

Though it's probably a mistake to take Taylor's list even semi-seriously, I note that two of the ten -- "race/ethnicity" and "feminist" -- are there because of the topics of some of the classes Taylor is reporting on, rather than because of the vocabulary people use in talking about intellectual matters.  Any of the following might have gotten on the list for this reason: "gender", "heteronormativity", "homophobia", "misogyny", "racism", "sexuality", "social class", "stereotype".

Two more of the items -- "paradoxically" and "ironic" -- are often targets for criticism because they are frequently used loosely, expressing mere surprise on the speaker's or writer's part, rather than actual paradox or irony.

And then there are other words that could have been contenders, for instance: "antithesis", "bifurcate", "conflate", "counterpose", "prolegomenon", "reiterate", "synthesis".  You can probably think of some others to juxtapose to these.

[Addendum: Martyn Cornell has managed to jam all ten words into a single sentence: "Paradoxically, the ubiquitous juxtaposition of an ironic feminist subjective/objective dichotomy alongside the duality of race/ethnicity is not iconoclasm."  It sort of flirts with meaning at several points, without actually achieving meaningfulness.  He is hoping for an A+ for this submission, but I told him that Katie Taylor is doing the grading on this one.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 19, 2007 09:48 AM