Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What Have We Got to Lose?

Clarity is slipping away with the loss of our language, our lack of care for the words we use. By limiting one's vocabulary we lose the subtle differences in similar-meaning words. Slippage in subject verb agreement, misplaced apostrophes, all of these reduce the clarity of our language.

Text messaging has eroded concern for spelling and punctuation, training millions of users to trade precision for speed. It always amazes me how many people don't differentiate "there", "their", and "they're."  I find myself using BTW for "by the way," as well as other kinds of shorthand for words.

This slippage of language also reduces the range of allusion. Those who have not read widely won't understand many allusions, such as "Luddite" and "sacrificial lamb." How many know the meaning of the phrase "in the catbird seat"?

Fewer and fewer Americans take Latin or Greek and are therefore unaware of the etymological layers of meaning that enrich words we use - like the relationship of "fabulous" and "fable." Yet "fabulous" is used almost as commonly in our speech as commas! (And, of course, there are those who don't use commas or use them incorrectly.)

Even questionable useage becomes common, like war language to describe healing, sports, and work. Little wonder that the idea of war has less emotional impact than it deserves.

Sarcasm, mild insults and ironic banter replace story or sustained conversation. It is easier to be sarcastic than to express what we think and feel. We don't bother to explore what is really meant by it.

Jargon divides us into us-and-them, destroying conversation with those "others" who aren't part of "us", the experts jargon separates us, that keeps us from understanding. This is true of all manner of specialties.
"We need the instruction and precise understanding that scholars and experts can provide. We need, a a public hoping to be an informed citizenry, to hold them accountable by demanding from our publicly funded institutions information and instruction that is both precise and accessible. The best of our astrophysicists, neuroscientists, and social theorists can rise to the challenge. 'Accessible' is not the same as 'dumbed-down.'"*
Silence in modern life is rare. Much of it is drowned out by words, song, written words, mindlessly used like disposable products used to buffer the discomfort of thought or the "strenuous spirituality" of silence. Imagine moments when there are no sounds that are not part of nature - no sound of traffic, of electronics, of clocks, or machines of any kind. What do you do in the silence?

In all of this wasting away of our language, where are those who love words? These ar those who can be good stewards of our language. Cherish it for its "beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal." Do you have a favorite turn of phrase or quote that just the sound of it brings you joy?

 Listen for meaning and clarity in the words of others. Strive to be more precise in your own choice of words. Use words as instruments of love. Value language as a national treasure.

Don't litter!

*Quotes and most thoughts are from Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, by Marilyn McEntyre.

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