BOB GARFIELD: We just heard about a controversy over incendiary words in France while at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently there was some modest hubbub, a dustup, a rhubarb perhaps, over a word that means just that --kerfuffle. Webster's College Dictionary defines "kerfuffle" as "disorder, uproar or confusion." Last month a staff writer at the Star-Trib used "kerfuffle" to describe "the falling out between Afro-American studies scholar Cornel West and Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Some readers called in, perplexed first at what this odd word meant and second at why it was popping up in their local daily. The paper put it to a vote and found that most respondents favored keeping "kerfuffle," and other uncommon words in the Star-Tribune's lexicon and -- you know, dictionary. Joining us now is Jim Stasiowski, an independent writing coach who's trained a number of journalists. Jim, welcome to OTM.
JIM STASIOWSKI: Thanks for calling me.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, should journalists or should they not be using obscure words like "kerfuffle?"
JIM STASIOWSKI: It depends on the type of story. If I'm writing a story about a sewer project going in on Elm Street I personally would not use obscure words because when the backhoes start I want the residents of Elm Street to have been warned. But if I'm writing a story about something more colorful and perhaps not as life-changing, I think we have a responsibility as newspapers to be leaders, and if part of that is introducing people to the apt word and it makes them run to their dictionaries, what's wrong with that?
BOB GARFIELD:Some people think what's wrong with that is that it is antithetical to the first responsibility of the newspaper which is to communicate important stuff to its readers. When more colorful language starts becoming, let's say, a pedagogical exercise of improving the readers' vocabulary, is that in any way a disservice to the reader?
JIM STASIOWSKI: Hang on. I'm looking up "pedagogical." [LAUGHTER] Stop.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, that was a dirty trick. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
JIM STASIOWSKI: Actually you're right in that we should be clear, but we also should be compelling. In trying to be creative with such words as "kerfuffle," I think that's fun. The fact that they were inconvenienced a little bit and had to go to their dictionaries is a good thing. I went to the dictionary to look up "kerfuffle," and I found some words I'd never heard before. "Kermes," the dried bodies of females of certain soft-scale insects used for making a purple red dye. I'm glad I learned that word. I'll never use it, but I'm glad I learned it.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm going to use it at the first opportunity. [LAUGHTER] What about the notion of just dumbing down the newspaper. I have heard variously that you're writing for an audience with a 6th grade education or an 8th grade education. Is that still the standard?
JIM STASIOWSKI: It is far too prevalent a standard. I like to quote Herbert Bayard Swope who was one of the earliest 20th Century heroes of American newspapers who said "I cannot tell you the formula for success, but I can tell you the formula for failure which is try to please everybody." I don't want a story that is written so that absolutely everybody is included and can read it. To try to make every story palatable to every reader --that's ridiculous.
BOB GARFIELD:Well you've been in a lot of newsrooms. Have you encountered in individual newspapers' stylebooks words that are strictly verboten because for whatever reason when the editor sees it, you know, he turns some shade of kermes?
JIM STASIOWSKI: [LAUGHS] I do know that editors have their specific bete noires that they do not allow.
BOB GARFIELD: Well what about you? Do you have your own personal "bete noire" which of course is a person or a thing that one hates or fears, literally "black beast" but commonly known as a "pet peeve?"
JIM STASIOWSKI: Yes. Infrastructures. Infrastructure is one of those vague words that everybody has a sense of what it means but there's no precision to it. Kerfuffle is a precise word. I might have to look it up. Once I do, I know the meaning and I grasp what the writer's after. If I look up "infrastructure," I'm going to be just as confused as I was at the time I read it.
BOB GARFIELD:What about the idea that when a newspaper writer uses a word like "kerfuffle" that he is just exposing himself for a pompous ass?
JIM STASIOWSKI: When the writer is doing nothing but showing off, then a good editor should spot that. However I want to make one point, and I think it's very important and it's not one that's very popular. The story belongs to the writer. The writer should not be scared away from using a word that he thinks is the apt word here. You wouldn't call a poet and say you chose the wrong word here.
BOB GARFIELD:Well I have to say I'm sympathetic to your idea, but I think if you floated it before, for example, the American Society of Newspaper Editors it would set off quite a-- oh!--
JIM STASIOWSKI: Kerfuffle!
BOB GARFIELD: -- no, I was going to say brouhaha. [LAUGHTER] Jim Stasiowski, thanks very much.
JIM STASIOWSKI: My pleasure, Bob. Thanks for calling.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim Stasiowski is an independent writing coach. He works out of Baltimore, Maryland. [MUSIC]