QUESTION: Why are there words for some extremely specific actions - like defenestration - but not for others?
ANSWER: We did a database search on "defenestration," seeing if it had appeared in the popular press, namely newspapers, and found it all over the place, casually popped into a sentence as though we all know what the heck it means. One pundit referred to a politician who "hopes to use a flagpole to defenestrate Sen. Paul Simon," a foreboding image indeed, while another used the earthy phrase, "Why don't you go defenestrate yourself?"Our handy Merriam-Webster dictionary defines defenestration as "a throwing of a person or a thing out of a window." It's a very precise definition. Why this word but not others? Particularly when, despite our previous pleadings, there still is no word for someone who talks during movies.
"The answer is relatively simple," says Walt Wolfram, director of research at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. "Basically you have words for things that are important to you. It's culturally defined. The classic example is that Eskimos have 40 words for snow."
Actually, there's an entirely different principle at work here: Latin roots are easily amended to make fanciful new derivations. The Latin word "fenestra," meaning window, merely needs a prefix and suffix.
"Sometimes things become a word because they're coined facetiously, and that's their only use," says Victoria Neufeldt, editor of Webster's New World Dictionary. These invented words are "academic in-jokes," she says.
We might also note the word of "sesquipedalian." It means, literally, something that measures a foot and a half. Like, 18 inches.
Because sesquipedalian is so comically unwieldy, it is now defined more precisely as an adjective meaning "having many syllables" or "given to or characterized by the use of long words."
QUESTION: Why is "Citizen Kane" considered the greatest film of all time?
ANSWER: Kane turns 50 this year and no doubt there will be much fuss about it.
Francois Truffaut said that of all the movies ever made, "Citizen Kane" is "probably the one that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers." This is not so much a comment on the film itself as on the magnificent, astonishing way that it was made: A young man arrives in Hollywood, having never worked in film at any length, and immediately co-writes, directs, produces and stars in a masterpiece. That's me! say all those film students.
They are wrong: They don't make Orson Welleses anymore. Woody Allen comes closest, perhaps. Welles was a prodigy. At the age of 10 he gave public lectures on the history of art. At 23 he was one of the most famous radio personalities and actors in the country, making the cover of Time magazine after the notorious "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938.
Orson Welles produced "Citizen Kane" in 1941. Some reasons for the film's greatness:
1. Naivete was an asset. "It is one of the few films ever made inside a major studio in the United States in freedom - not merely in freedom from interference but in freedom from the routine methods of experienced directors," writes Pauline Kael in "The Citizen Kane Book."
2. It's wonderfully self-indulgent. There's nothing stuffy about it. Early on, we see the neon sign of the El Rancho cabaret, and then we slowly travel across the dilapidated roof and pass down through the skylight to the interior, where the boozing Susan Alexander Kane is talking to a reporter. Later, the shot is repeated in the same order, but this time when we reach the skylight we see that it is broken - by the camera, presumably. It's a gag!
3. With only the thinnest of fictional veils, the movie is a devastating portrait of a powerful person, William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon of yellow journalism.
Hearst was extremely influential in Hollywood and almost managed to stop the film's release. That effort failed, but it prevented the movie from having a wider release and making any money. Welles never again was given carte blanche to make a film.
He exiled himself to Europe and, despite a few triumphs such as "Touch of Evil," eventually became most famous as a funny fat man and a spokesman for Paul Masson Wine.