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!