Myriad

Russ writes:
I’m finding this word to be overused to the point of being annoying…Ever since the movie Heathers set that word into my vocabulary my skin crawls every time I hear it in phrases such as “a myriad of programs/solutions/results/conclusions/etc.” This may be a personal quirk of mine though.

Tony responds:
Only recently have I begun to hear people complaining about this classic word — which is used today in much the same way the ancient Greeks used “myriades,” which comes from “myrios,” meaning “a countless number.”

“Myriades” also took on the more specific meaning of “multiples of 10,000,” but it was used in the more general sense from the very beginning. It definitely isn’t jargon — it has a stellar pedigree in all sorts of common writing, dating back more than 400 years in English (Milton used it, 340 years ago, in Paradise Lost) and hundreds more in Latin and Greek.

Still, I think I can guess why some in the public-interest world would find it irritatingly overused.

In a communications seminar not long ago, I noted one writer’s insistent use of the word “numerous” to describe things that seem to occur in large but not-precisely-known numbers. Since this person works in a field where precisely known numbers are scarce, everything in her world seemed fit for the adjective “numerous.” (For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to her to try “myriad,” but if she reads this, a great verbal love affair will be born.)

I asked her: “Why not just say ‘a lot’? It means the same, sounds less solemn, and will at least provide a little variety, mixed in with all those numerosities.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” she instantly replied. “This [foundation] is an intensely competitive, intellectually rigorous environment. If people saw me writing “a lot,” I’d be finished. No one would take me seriously. I’d be treated like the village idiot.”

So that, apparently, is what passes for intellectual rigor these days. It’s perfectly all right to assert that you have no idea how large the numbers you are citing might be, provided that you express your complete lack of precision in in Latin or Greek.

Here is a secret that no one will tell you in graduate school: In truly intellectual environments, the most formidable speakers and writers are the ones who can present sophisticated, complex thoughts with terrifying ease, grace, simplicity, even playfulness. Those are the people you don’t want to be stuck debating, because compared with them, all your Latin and Greek will seem self-conscious, defensive, and unoriginal. When the real brains are at work, it’s the ideas, not the vocabulary, that take flight.

Of course, those environments are rare. The places where everyone talks fancy and says little, … well, sadly, those are myriad.

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