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!