You know the parable of the mechanic's hammer? I kinda feel like single word answers are the same sorta thing: it's not how much effort it takes to produce the answer so much as knowing the perfect answer in the first place.
However . . . in the parable, the ship owner can immediately evaluate whether the fix was effective. The story is powerful because even someone with no experience in ship repair can evaluate the difference between a functional engine and an engine that isn't working at all. The mechanic's process might be obscure, but not his results. That's not at all true for single word answers.
To put it another way, if you read SWRs with 2 or more answers how do you know which answer is best? Well, if you already have a masterful grasp of English vocabulary, it may be that the best word will lock into place like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But what if you don't know what the words mean? Or what if the perfect word fits because of the way it's been used in literature not everyone has read? Or what if the word is perfect because someone imported it from some other language where it has that special je ne sais quoi?
So the dictionary definition might help sometimes, but not always. Adding a definition that doesn't explain why you picked the word is busywork, devalues your answer and doesn't help the asker or future readers. If you picked the word because of some obscure meaning, by all means quote the dictionary. But don't use the dictionary to provide cover for an answer that would otherwise be pure opinion.
Words are powerful
It's always bugged me that the mechanic in the story didn't look for root causes. In fact, nearly the same thing happened to me a few years ago. My truck wouldn't start so I called AAA. The tow truck driver asked me about the symptoms so that he could decide whether to jumpstart or tow. After I explained, he went into his toolbox, pulled out a hammer and started banging on my fuel tank. (He also rocked the truck back and forth for good measure, but that breaks the parallelism.) Then I started the engine and he told me to drive to a mechanic's shop right away.
You see, the teeth on the plastic gears in the fuel pump had sheared off in one spot. If I got lucky, they would line up properly the next time I shut the engine. But if I got unlucky, I'd need to hope the hammer trick worked again. I might have kept a hammer in the bed of the truck or I could just fix the problem. Since the tow truck driver was good at his job, I had the information to make that choice. (I got the pump replaced, if you were wondering.)
My point is, handing someone a
hammer word might help their immediate problem, but won't solve the deeper question of how meaning is expressed in our wonderful, complex, sometimes-confounding language. If you suggest a Latin phrase and I try to use it in my country western song, it's possible there was something missing in the answer. (It's also possible I have no business being a songwriter, but that's a different story.) Tell me, in general terms, when your word choice is appropriate so I won't get booed off the honky-tonk stage.
Ultimately, word choice is subjective. Maybe that's why popular quotations are so often misquoted. If the original doesn't quite fit our need, we change it. (Whether knowingly or not is unimportant.) But allow me to (accurately) quote from a useful treatise on subjective questions:
Great subjective questions inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”. The best subjective questions invite explanation. If you’re asking for a product recommendation of some kind, you want answers to contain detailed information about the features and how they can be used, and why you might want to choose one over the other. “How?” and “Why?” has more lasting value than a bunch of product-feature bullet points or a giant enumerated list, no matter how extensive. In contrast, the bad subjective questions let answerers get away with hit-and-run answers that maybe provide a name and a link—but fail to provide any sort of adequate explanation, context, or background.
Show your work and encourage others to do the same
When I read the title of a SWR, I often think of a word straight from my gut. It just feels right, you know? I want to quickly type an answer and get the glory that comes from having exactly the right word for a situation. But then I read some of the answers and see how they argue for their word choice. And as often as not, there are better words than mine and the explanation opens my eyes. Or, there are words that work better in situations I hadn't considered. Other times, the explanation fails to convince me, which is better than no explanation at all. If I were to answer, I'd want to dig a bit more to find out why I like one particular word.
If you see an answer that doesn't back up its opinion, there are several choices:
- Downvote (or at least don't upvote).
- Ask a probing question in the comments: "How did you pick this word?"
- Vote to delete.
- If you feel generous, edit the answer.
- If not, write your own answer explaining why the word fits. (And please don't suggest that reusing a single word is plagiarism! If you don't want someone to steal your work, back up your answer.)
And sometimes it's a sign the question itself needs edits or deletion.