28 june 01

Last night I went to a panel discussion called "Word Craze." The three panelists were Anne Soukhanov who is a dictionary editor, Stefan Fatsis who recently wrote a book about being a champion Scrabble player, and Will Shortz who edits the New York Times crossword puzzles. The discussion was supposed to be about America's obsession with words and language but was really a discussion of our declining usage skills. It turns out that college students just can't spell, and that they confuse words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. They also have no idea how to pluralize words with Latin or Greek roots. They can't construct sentences and don't know the difference between affect and effect, fewer and less, blatant and flagrant, and they write "alot" as if it's one word. Scrabble players apparently don't care about usage; they memorize lists of words solely for use in the game—there's a disconnect between meaning and play. The best Scrabble players are mathematicians and computer programmers. Besides hearing about how there's a whole generation of people whose skills with the language have detoriated, I learned how words are entered into the dictionary and how they get accepted into crossword puzzles. I learned that crosswords are prudish and that avoid anything to do with sex (at least in the Times). I learned about the role the Internet has played in introducing new words into the language, how people see the Internet as being responsible (in part) for the decline of our language skills since anyone can publish on the Internet without use of an editor and editors are damn important. I left feeling grateful that when I was a kid and I'd ask my parents what a word meant, they invariably told me to "look it up."