A Disquisition on the Efficacy and Utilitarian Pragmatism of Orotund Language
I love words the way other people love music. Or painting. And, I suppose, grilled cheese sandwiches. There’s gotta be some people who are passionate about them. Gardening, too, I suppose. Or, I don’t know, Civil War trivia. Also, I really like most of those things as well.
I’ve strayed a bit. Suffice it to say I love words like other people love…other things. There’s a physical reaction, a surge of endorphins when I come across the artful arrangement of words. A well-wrought sentence can leave me quite literally in awe. I also delight in individual words: the sound of them, their rhythm, their self-contained histories. As the linguist Nom Chomsky (or Mr. T.: I always confuse the two). once incisively noted: I pity the fool who only thinks of words as merely a means to an end.
Having said (or technically, written, that), and having proven myself quite happy to throw in the occasional latinate doozy (e.g., latinate), there is a line. Where that line is fluid, but, like has been said about the elusive definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. And I would like to report a sighting of egregious line-crossing.
Who Am I to Judge?
You’re right: I’m neither an authority on language nor a prominent voice in the writing community, it’s true. Thanks for picking at that scab. But I’m a reader, dammit, and I have rights. Specifically, I have the right to read an article in a much-loved magazine (I won’t reveal the name. Let’s just say it rhymes with The Atlantic) without having to crash into the linguistic abutment that is the word “stochastic.”
For reasons lost to history (but it’s a safe bet not having a date that night played a role), I happen to know the meaning of that word. I have a quiet hobby of mentally cataloguing obscure words. I know, how did I stay single so long?
I May Not Know Much, But I Know What the Word Stochastic Means. I’m Also Not Invited to Many Parties.
And now, so do you: it means random. That’s it. Not some subtle variation of random, not random but also freighted with some ineffable but present sense of otherness. It just means random. No more, no less. Also, it’ a synonym of arbitrary. Obviously. Granted, statisticians use it at times to describe a random process, but that’s super-technical jargon, and it means at the end of the day, “random.”
I don’t begrudge the forgotten, one might argue, stochastic, soul who coined it, and I feel the pain they must have as they saw it fail to catch on in a meaningful way. Who I am picking a bone with is anyone who’d use it of their own volition when publishing for the general public. Sure, if you’re writing for Statistics Weekly or Statistician’s World or Stats!, fine.
But for a magazine not based in the sexy, ruthless world that is the statistics-centric magazine market, you’re pushing it, even if the magazine’s demographic skews to the highly educated. If you’ve written a piece that has forced you to use “random,” “arbitrary,” and even “indiscriminate” past the point of comfort, maybe you can justify it to yourself. But this happened in the first paragraph. And in the rest of the article, the need for stochastian (or maybe stochast-esque? Pick your favorite) language is minimal.
One of the things I love best about English is that it may be the finest tool for communication ever devised. Your mileage may vary. My theory as to why (hardly novel) is that the English language is a voracious and remorseless thief. If it finds a word it likes that we don’t have a precise definition for, like schadenfreude, from the Germans or simply love how the sound communicates the meaning, like gung-ho from the Chinese, it swipes it. And Lord knows how many words the French have surrendered to us (what a reductive, cheap joke. Still, apparently I decided to keep it. I want to be clear: I’m just kidding. And I feel I can because the French and I have that kind of friendship).
You Know I’m Just Kidding, France, Right? You’re Not Answering My Texts and Now I’m Worried You’re Mad. Don’t Be Mad.
And of course there’s the litany of invaders of Britain who’ve kindly shared their words as they raped in pillaged their way through the British isles. But I digress. And as much as I’m a sucker for words of all shapes, sizes, and especially, sounds, I believe that, even at its gaudiest moments of impressionistic creativity, its chief function is communication. You certainly never want to talk down to your readers, and if you have an arcane word that is the absolute mot juste (thank you, France! You know what we’ve got is special), go for it.
But stochastic? Its only pragmatic function in an article not discussing statistical data is to show off. It’s sure as hell not not making a good-faith effort to communicate, is it? And to acknowledge the elephant, or pachyderm, as the author would put it, in the room, she has clearly had more far success as a writer than I’ve ever known. After all, she writes for a magazine that rhymes with The Atlantic.
But this diction is such that it pulls the reader out of the sentence with whiplash-inducing suddenness and violence. And to be clear, I’m so geeky, I usually become a little giddy when I have to look up a word I don’t know (it happens frequently). And that’ s because 95% of the time, the word conveys, with tear-wrenching precision and beauty, something which more prosaic diction would have failed to do.
I Empathize, Ironically Because I Dabble in Narcissism Myself.
I get it. I mean, we all, or certainly many of us, write in part because we want to show off. For approval. For validation. To prove, once and for all, that you, Joanne D. were a FOOL to reject my request to go with me to the 6th Grade dance. Take that, Joanne.
But ultimately, it’s an abrogation (yep. I think that’s the best word here) of our responsibility to readers. You’re too good for that, author of this problematic article, and your otherwise incisive essay is too worthy to succumb to the pedantic impulses we all have sometimes.
Let’s try to spot and ignore those impulses in ourselves. They’re puerile. I mean childish. Dammit.
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