Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tread Not Upon My Thesaurus

I just returned from our weekly lunch discussion open to faculty, staff, and students of the college. This week an English professor led an engaging discussion about being stewards of language. It is an issue that has been on my consciousness often: every time I read a novel by Charlotte Brontë or Wodehouse and bemoan our shrinking vocabularies, or wince as yet another person begins her spontaneous prayer with “I just really…,” or read a letter hemorrhaging the word “awesome.”

The professor provided a poignant quote from Orwell’s Essays:

“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

It in turn reminds me of a lovely quote by Nietzsche, in which he challenges us to reexamine our stale ideas (which are indelibly linked to the words we use):

“Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and gray. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him.”

One statistic I heard today astonished me—44% of all American adults do not read one book in the course of the year. If that is the case, no wonder our vocabularies are shrinking and we can’t order our thoughts or share them coherently! I think the solution is simple—if we read scholarly books and emulate the language, if we write more and cultivate what we are writing, and if we willingly pause in silence while speaking instead of using “filler language,” just imagine how much clearer and more elegant our communication could be!

Recommended Reading: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s a classic that I first read in the 8th grade, and thanks to Messrs. S&W I vehemently protest every time I hear someone saying she is “nauseous” (i.e., nauseating to others) instead of “nauseated” (i.e., feeling sick).


Patches said...

The correct reply to the statement "I'm nauseous" is, "Yes, you are, and you will continue being nauseous until you gain mastery of your own language". I apologise, I my self am not very good with words and tend to botch up from time to time. By which I mean often. Regardless of this, I am unnerved by the atrocities that flow from the mouths of my fellow students. I sometimes wonder what is worse, that for some the English language consists of no more than two dozen words, half of which being four letters long, or that many believe that purposefully butchering their native tongues makes them somehow more desirable to be around. Not that I haven't done this as well, I fully admit to my wrong doings. That is why I make a continuous effort to speak both clear and articulate.

Watoosa said...

Patches, I'm going to quote you from now on. That is so funny. And it's obvious you are articulate.
One of the other statistics I heard yesterday applies here: There are over a million words in the English language. Most educated people know 200,000 of those words but use only 2000 in a given week.
And yes, I'm in agreement with you that butchering the language is a shame too.

Kevin said...

I'd also like to recommend my second favorite NPR show A Way With Words, your "joyride through the English language." Al and I boost our command of the wonderfully robust linguistic heritage we have (even if ever so slighly) each week through their podcast.

Patches said...

Yes, well... when typing, I have no difficulty with words. Speech is an altogether different matter. I am easily distracted, thus loosing where I am in the conversation. It is difficult to say what one intends to say and speak properly when one does not remember the subject being discussed. Also, having the ability to read over one's words before expressing said words often makes one appear more articulate than one really is.

hambone said...

Less. Than. One. Book. A. Year.

That is disgraceful.

Randall and I watch a lot of anime, so I don't mean to sound like a media snob, but honestly, is there that much on TV that's interesting?