Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Word?

When I was nine years old, my siblings and I were given a dictionary by our grandfather. This was no “children’s” dictionary. It was Websters New Universal Unabridged Dictionary Deluxe Second Edition, a massive 4.3-inch thick book that weighed roughly 15% of my body weight at the time. Engraved on this cinder block was the following:

“Children — the more you refer to this dictionary the more intelligent you will become. Never let a word pass by that you don’t understand its meaning. Always refer to this book with the knowledge that in return its gift to you is knowledge. Love, Grandpa Szypulski, 1986.”

This inscription was among many factors (see also: “The Inception of Madness”) that led to my lifelong curiosity and respect for words. But it was precisely this inscription that took away my fear of words.

Since then, I have employed a pretty liberal vocabulary in the presence of family, friends, colleagues, clients, and yes — kids. Words to me are a means to a desired end, whether it be understanding, initiation, inspiration, or insult. Even curse words are not strictly taboo … if anything, they are a form of currency (enterprising nieces and nephews can earn a decent wage just hanging around the game table after dinner).

I guess you could say that I was raised to be an unabridged kind of guy.

But my freedom from filters was tested last March. During #MMPoetry 2013, I took a lot of heat — both publicly and privately — for the words that I assigned to authletes in the first round of the tournament. Words like bastardized, anthropomorphization, and narcotize (to name only a few) that were perceived as inappropriate, incomprehensible, or otherwise “too difficult” to incorporate into poetry for kids.

I didn’t mind the personal criticism; in fact, I expected it. But what quite surprised me was how the presence of those “big bad words” caused people to distance themselves from the event, and perhaps to shield kids from it. Even though the authletes delivered stellar poems using even the most difficult words (see Eric Ode’s brilliant I Slumber to Numbers, for example), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had affronted the entire community of poets, parents, and educators with my controversial word choices. Whether or not it showed on the outside, I felt completely deflated for the duration of the tournament. [EDIT: NOT because of anyone’s comments about the words — I’m glad that people expressed their opinions honestly — but because, as it related to word choice, I felt that I had let everyone down by failing to think about the event from anyone else’s point of view but my own.] This ultimately resulted in me more or less abandoning my March Madness Poetry: Transmogrification Edition Kickstarter project within a few days of its launch. If the community had rallied and drove the project to success on its own, I would have been thrilled, but I wasn’t going to push something that others seemed instinctively hesitant to support.

Maybe — probably — it was all in my head, but I felt that those first round words damaged the #MMPoetry brand and destroyed a good deal of goodwill that I had built up within the community.

Either way, I don’t ever want to feel that way again.

So now, as I look toward #MMPoetry 2014, I find myself in search of a filter for the first time. While I have no doubt that #MMPoetry authletes will continue to expertly handle any word that I throw their way, I proceed cautiously, more sensitive to the reality that not everyone is as liberal as I am when it comes to words.

Being the statistical nerd that I am, I decided to create a system that I can use to evaluate any word in the English language and assess its “fit” for #MMPoetry. I ended up creating an algorithm that goes beyond spitting out a general thumbs up or thumbs down; it actually produces a numeric seed on the now familiar 1-to-16 scale. As you can imagine, some words may score well above 16 — these are the ones that I will need to think long and hard about before assigning.

To create the algorithm, I considered the question “What makes a word hard to incorporate into a poem for kids?” I settled on the following four factors:

  • Word length (measured as number of syllables)
  • Word rarity (measured by usage in English fiction between 1998-2008 according to Google’s Ngram Viewer)
  • Contextual complexity (measured by the relative reading level of web pages in which the word is tagged)
  • Contextual safety (measured by the ratio of normal search engine hits to kid-safe search engine hits)

Between these four factors, I was able to obtain an excellent distribution of word scores across the 1-to-16 scale, which will serve as a great guide for seeding words during the tournament. I will still apply some subjectivity to the seeding, but largely I will follow the advice of the system when it comes to words that are “off the charts.”

If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you might be curious as to how some of the craziest words from #MMPoetry 2013’s first round would have been seeded according to my new algorithm. Here are the ones that deserved a 17-seed or higher, along with the reason(s) behind those seeds:

burgle – 17 – rarity, safety
puttering – 18 – safety (???)
bastardized – 19 – rarity, safety
wassailing – 19 – rarity, safety
narcotize – 20 – rarity, safety
liability – 20 – length, complexity
sextuple – 20 – rarity, complexity, safety
lugubrious – 20 – complexity, safety
dilatory – 20 – complexity
asymmetric – 21 – complexity
liquefaction – 21 – rarity, complexity
perpendicular – 22 – length, complexity
meretricious – 25 – complexity, safety
equivocations – 26 – length, rarity, complexity
moratorium – 30 – length, complexity
anthropomorphization – 45! – length, rarity, complexity, AND safety

And to think of the words that I didn’t assign …

Stay tuned for more news on #MMPoetry 2014 in the coming days and weeks, and THANK YOU for your continued support!

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  • Keri Collins Lewis

    Your scientific approach blows my mind. I’m sorry you felt deflated and unsupported. I think the online world is still a tough place to interact — we don’t know people well, we can’t see facial expressions or hear tones of voice. You are a pioneer and I’m so glad you didn’t give up. As my granny would say, “It will all come out in the wash.” ;-)

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com/ Ed DeCaria

      Thanks, Keri. As I tried to make more clear in my marked edit above, I did not feel UNsupported. What I was trying to say is that I felt deflated because I did not fully take into account the points of view of the authletes/parents/teachers who may not be (or by responsibility cannot be) as loose with words as I am.

  • Matt Forrest

    Ed, I wasn’t at all concerned about the complexity of your words – although I’m willing to accept that ‘narcotize’ probably was a tad inappropriate, given its definition. My only concern is when words like these go up against very simple words, such as, “rent” vs. “parallax” or, in my case, “awry” vs. “verjuice!” The easier the word, the easier the poem is to write (generally speaking)…and when non-kid-friendly words like ‘narcotize’ or ‘verjuice’ are given, it’s difficult to write a poem that is also kid-friendly.

    (Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my poem and am not complaining about being given that word – but many of the responses to it were that it wasn’t as kid-friendly as Robyn’s, which I agree. And Robyn’s was a terrific poem! But how does one write a poem with words meaning “to stupefy with narcotics” or “alcoholic liquid obtained from fermented fruit” and make them kid-friendly?)

    Just my thoughts. I’m sorry you felt bad about the complaints you received…I have no problem with their complexity, as we should never talk down to kids. And if you do your Kickstarter campaign this year, count me in – again!

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com/ Ed DeCaria

      Thanks, Matt. My counter-question to your “very simple vs. very complex” matchup point is “Do the expectations of the reader balance out the difficulty for the authlete?” In the case of 3-awry vs. 14-verjuice (which the new algorithm says should have been a 16-seed by the way), did readers take into account the fact that verjuice is a ridiculous word to have to use in a kids’ poem?

  • Damon Dean

    Interesting approach Ed, but I had no problems with the words last year. Still, a ‘process’ approach doesn’t necessarily have a downside. Especially if it will push the collection toward the ‘kid-friendly’ end of the spectrum. I can understand Matt’s thoughts. In the end, I like Keri’s conclusion…’It will all come out in the wash.”

  • http://www.glosonblog.com Gloson

    Hahaha. Enjoyed this post, Ed! But I am quite familiar with the word “antroprmoieromazation” (I need to learn to spell it, though), because I look up Disney characters on Wikipedia. However, I have to admit I enjoy a good challenge if given a difficult word. It allows you to be creative. Maybe just try to avoid the less kid-appropriate ones like narcotize and sextuple. That’s it. =P All the best for MMPoetry2014. I know it will be great! Any news about the new voting system yet?

  • http://www.thinkkidthink.com/ Ed DeCaria

    Ran some quick numbers. In #MMPoetry 2013, there were 27 of what I call “skip-level” matchups (of 60 total seeded matchups, excluding the Final Four and Finals). When I say “level,” I’ve said before that I think of seeds 1-4 as “intuitive,” 5-8 as “reasonable,” 9-12 as “odd,” and 13-16 as “seemingly impossible.” So by skip-level, I mean an intuitive word vs. an odd word, a reasonable word vs. a seemingly impossible word, or an intuitive word vs. a seemingly impossible word (a double-skip-level). Of the 27 skip-level matchups in 2013, the easier word won 14 times and the harder word won 13 times. Of the 17 double-skip-level matchups, the easier word won 8 times and the harder word won 9 times.

    • http://clashofcultures.typepad.com/ Expat Eliz

      I also do not agree that any of the words you chose were inappropriate (and I got “bastardized”). Isn’t part of the point of children’s poetry to enrich their vocabulary? At the time, I worried more that the double-skip-level matchups gave an unfair advantage to one side, but the statistics do not back that up, so I’m not sure it’s necessary to change anything. Voting is going to be subjective no matter what you do.

  • djts

    Looking at the words and their ratings, Ed, I don’t think that asymmetric, perpendicular and moratorium would be too difficult for kids. I don’t think number of syllables is a good indicator really. The meaning is perhaps the most important. Not sure why burgle and putter made it so high either – safety?
    That said, it can’t hurt to try the new filters. I didn’t get any of those “questionable” words, but I did breathe a sigh of relief when I saw that I could have. Whatever happens, I think we just will have to wait until wash day.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com/ Ed DeCaria

      I agree. I am definitely still playing around with the algorithm itself. The syllables are important for creating separation among the lower seeds, but I’ll probably dampen or eliminate the effect of word length at the higher levels.

  • Janet F.

    Hi Ed,
    Your post is honest and I appreciate what you are doing in regard to tweaking the contest, though your programming and analytical skills are far more than tweaking. I know from talking to teachers, some poets and my own views that some of the words did put an early damper on the contest for some folks. That and the fact that one IP address for a school system means that teachers could not vote in their classrooms. I think part of the trouble was so many “potentially contentious” words seemingly in a group/at a time. Once you had bastardized, narcotize and sextuple even though they are fine enough words and the poets did a great job, teachers are thinking, “what’s next”? And before they see the poem, “what will be in this poem?” And if you have not taught groups of 10 – 14 year olds, it does not take much to get them off on a tangent and snickering among themselves. Then it can be sometimes difficult to bring them back to the main point. Yes, while it is great to expand their vocabulary, to show them how a word that might have other connotations in different situations can be used effectively and interestingly in a poem, more than a few kids at this age, in a classroom setting, are not mature enough to keep their eye on the prize! And in this day and age, the prize is test prep, so anything that takes precious class time needs to really deliver. And I think the March Madness Poetry Tournament does in so many ways. I loved the first year, enjoyed the second and almost all the poems both years. I am glad you are working to make the contest more and more viable. And in the day of test prep, I think kids need things like creativity and poetry to feed their interest in literacy. However you can’t please everyone. I am very glad you are doing all you can to keep the contest going and to addressing concerns and problems as you go. I am also wondering about the whole rhyming vs free-verse issue and humor vs serious, too. I am curious about your metric for that.

  • Robyn Hood Black

    Hi, Ed – Just waving hello and sending thanks for your perseverance (and mathematical abilities, of which I have nearly none.) I hope MM2014 is a rollicking success. I might have to bow out for this year, as we’re in the throes of a big move and I have some traveling in March – but I’ll be enjoying from afar if I can’t join in the fun this time. All the best!

  • Michelle Heidenrich Barnes

    A week late to this post, I know. Sorry, Ed. But I wanted to let you know that unabridged is cool with me! Maybe I was in the minority (or maybe the silent majority?), but I love the fact that your March Madness stretches the readers (kids and adults) as much as the participants, thereby expanding our minds and our universe… maybe I’m getting carried away here, but I think you know what I mean. Okay, I hear the opposing view, and maybe a filter is in order for the first round or two, working up to the more difficult words. But honestly, for me it was never about the competition– the poetry was better because of the challenge involved! I don’t know how you choose participants, but if possible, I’d love to take part myself this time around.

  • Josh

    I had a much easier time with meretricious than I did with euphemism and rationalize, haha. Surprised it’s labeled so difficult via this algorithm. I suppose the definition plays a part in that.

  • Jone

    Thanks for the explanation. Love words too. It’s always a dilemma for what’s appropriate. But I lobe the poem that used narcotize.