New York Times Releases List of Reader-Stumping Words

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Question: How many degrees do you need to read the New York Times?  Apparently, a few.

The NYT Web Analytics Group recently released the top 50 most frequently looked up words from for 2010, and it’s enough to make even the most seasoned wordsmith sweat.

Pop quiz time – what is the definition of “soporific”? “Cynosure”? How about “obstreperous”? No clue? Then you may have a tough time getting through the morning paper.

Even Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor of standards who has also studied Greek and Latin at Harvard, confessed to being at a loss for the definition of cynosure — but only because it was read out of context. For future reference, it means “a person or thing at the center of attention or interest.” Save that one for your next crossword puzzle.

Now not all of the words on the list are really that difficult. “Overhaul” was the 22nd most looked up word (really?) and one word was a New York Times’ original.

And, admittedly, some of the words on the list are ones we all should know, such as “Kristallnacht” (or The Night of the Broken Glass, referring to the anti-Jewish riots in Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938) and “renminbi” (the official currency of the People’s Republic of China).

But considering how many times these words are being looked up (over 135, 000 times collectively), you have to wonder why the Times insists that some of these are words “we simply can’t do without.” NewsFeed understands not wanting to talk down to your readers, but should reading the paper be paired with reading a dictionary, too?