Smarty Pants

There was an article in The New Yorker recently that really got under my skin. It wasn’t so much what the article was about as the way it was written.  I’ll explain.

Often when I’m reading something, I come across words that I don’t know the meaning of.  These usually fall neatly into two categories: words that I’m familiar with but don’t know the exact definition, and words that sound like they’re simply made up—I’ve never come across them before.  Unfortunately, I always stop reading in order to find out what the hell the rogue word is.  I say ‘unfortunately’ because while ordinarily, you might think this would be worthwhile pursuit, it isn’t.  It slows me down tremendously resulting in needing about eighteen months to read a medium sized novel.  And sadly, I only remember what I’ve learned for about fourteen minutes.  Meaning that I’m forever looking up a word that I’ve already looked up at some other time and know that I’m going to be looking up again in the future.  Yet, I continue. I don’t know where this compulsion comes from.  It has such a Protestant ethic that it plays into my feeling that I was, indeed, adopted.

Hmm...looks more plangent than scary. Maybe I'll rent it.

Hmm…looks more plangent than scary. Maybe I’ll rent it.

The article in question was a piece written by John Lahr about the actress, Julianne Moore.  I had intended to simply scan the article because I’m not much into star gazing, but there were some sections that caught my attention and I wound up reading the entire thing.  Mr. Lahr used to be the Senior Drama Critic at The New Yorker but now he’s only an occasional contributor.  He is also the son of the actor, Bert Lahr, who is most well-known for his role as the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.  I know this simply from hearsay–that movie is at the top of the list of scary ones I’ve never seen (Psycho, Jaws, Birds, The Shining, Bambi . . . I won’t go on; I’m trying to keep this post shorter than the last.)

For some reason Mr. Lahr decided to pepper this article with lots of words I didn’t know the meaning of. That’s okay but he really went overboard with the Category Two words (the ones I’ve never even heard of).  And why?  Just because he wanted to show he’s a know-it-all? Really!  For example, in writing about Ms. Moore he cites a role in which she, “showcased her plangency “.  This has something to do with a plaintive quality.  You just know there is a way more common (and understandable) way to get that sentiment across.  In a similar smarty pants way, he describes a film she appeared in as a, “coruscating satire about Hollywood”.  And these are just the tip of the literary iceberg. Is his primary goal to try and make me feel stupid?  Or have me spend my day looking things up instead of reading?  Or both?  Well, coruscate you, Mr. Lahr!!

Now, of course, I risk the same kind of mockery I had directed at me when I wrote about not knowing who John Cage was.  It turns out everyone and his brother was familiar with Mr. Cage. So if you have any feelings whatsoever for me, even if these words are part of your working vocabulary, please . . . keep it to yourself.


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