“But 99 Percent of Our Readers Will Have No Idea What It Means!”

This weekend’s Washington Post Magazine has a moving story about how a small village in the Netherlands continues to honor eight United States airmen whose plane was shot down and crashed there during World War Two. The story is by Richard B. Woodward, a New York  art critic. The lede:

The village of Opijnen (oh-PIE-nin) in the Netherlands is a farming community where grazing sheep, cows and goats outnumber people (population around 1,200), and cars have to move to the side of the narrow roads for tractors coming in the opposite direction. There are no stores and one church, which discreetly tolls the hour. It’s therefore hard to imagine how shocking it must have been 75 years ago when the town’s slow, ancient, chthonic rhythms were surreally interrupted by a thunderous explosion.


From Wikipedia: Chthonic (/ˈθɒnɪk/, UK also /ˈkθɒn-/; from Ancient Greek: χθόνιος, translit. khthónios [kʰtʰónios], “in, under, or beneath the earth”, from χθών khthōn “earth”) literally means “subterranean”, but the word in English describes deities or spirits of the underworld, especially in Ancient Greek religion.

Did the Post Magazine editors meet to discuss that word? “But 99 percent of our readers will have no idea what it means!”

At the Washingtonian, here’s how we once debated a similarly strange word.

Some Writers You Don’t Edit

Robert Hughes, 74, the art critic and author, died August 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. The New York Times described him as “eloquent and combative,” adding “It was decidedly not Mr. Hughes’s method to take prisoners.”

He wrote one wonderful story for The Washingtonian. Published in October 1989 and titled “Art & Intimacy,” it was about the Phillips Collection.  The lede: “Everyone who loves early modern art loves the Phillips Collection and envies Washington for having it.”

Howard Means, an editor at the magazine, dealt with Hughes and the story, which ran about 6,000 words. One of  those words had never appeared in any book or magazine I’d ever read. Being a believer in clarity and in Harold Ross’s favorite question—”What the hell do you mean?”—I strongly suggested we change it.

Here’s the sentence in question: “And yet the Phillips has never lost its aedicular quality, its gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art.”

Howard remembers it this way: “You almost fainted when I sent the manuscript your way without removing that word. You wanted to rewrite the front of that sentence as ‘And yet the Phillips has never lost its nicheyness’—or something like that. I countered that Hughes was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments.”

Howard also remembers, “We might have changed eight words in the entire piece he sent in and even those caused great rumblings and trepidation.”

Howard, as usual, was right about words. Can you imagine Robert Hughes getting an author’s galley where an editor had inserted something like nicheyness into his vocabulary?


  1. Eugene Carlson says

    There’s a case to be made for teaching readers a new word. When it comes from an excellent writer, is perfect for the situation, and isn’t just show-offy (a la George Will), I say leave it in.

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