A dear reader of this column wrote me recently to gently chide me for my use of big words. In his 70 years, he said, he had never had occasion to use some of the words that have appeared in this column, and he wasn’t sure that there was any reason for me to be using them either.
Being rather pusillanimous when I get letters from people I respect objecting to my use of the word pusillanimous, I immediately apologized.
But his letter got me thinking about words. Scripture tells us that “In the beginning was the Word,” a passage that should thrill every writer, even if we hardly understand what it means.
The English language is so remarkably complex and vital because it has so many linguistic rivers feeding into it: Anglo-Saxon and Italian and French, German and Greek. The five-dollar words that can irritate some people usually have Latin roots. If one is not careful, using these words can create the impression that one is putting on airs.
My problem is that I was an English major, and I developed a love for words early on. It is a pleasure to discover new ones, and combining them in alliterative or tongue-twisting groupings that are memorable or uniquely descriptive is a deeply satisfying vice. One of the great political retorts of the last 50 years came from one of our less adept politicians, Spiro Agnew. He had a great speech writer, William Safire, who coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” It is such a well-constructed putdown that even when I was young and disagreed with Agnew on virtually everything, I had nothing but admiration for the phrase itself — once I had gone to the dictionary.
These days, I don’t know if anyone — even the Orator in Chief occupying the White House — could get away with such a phrase. Our public language is growing simpler, and there are reasons for that.
First, we are becoming more of an oral culture. The omnipresence of television, radio and the movies for going on a century has emphasized dialogue and the simpler words used in spoken speech.
Teachers have noted that students are becoming more verbal and less literate, which has implications. In a world of ideas, the decline in writing and decline in vocabulary, and the reliance on the oral and the visual, pose a political and religious danger. It creates an environment that can be easily manipulated, because the emotional appeal, the striking visual image, the clever juxtaposition of spoken word and visual image can defeat the more sober assertion of fact and diligent striving for truth.
Ironically, this trend has also contributed to the omnipresence of profanity. Since so much of what we hear is aping ordinary conversation, profanity is seen as a necessary ingredient that adds authenticity to any passage. HBO seems incapable of broadcasting for five minutes without using the “F-bomb,” but even prime time on major networks is bad. This debases the language even more.
Second, our writing skills are being reduced by our means of communication. Few people any longer handwrite a letter, or even type a letter. We dash off e-mails or text messages or tweets. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are all expendable in such correspondence. The medium shapes the message, and our vocabulary shrinks more.
To be honest, however, I can’t say that the words I use are in response to HBO or the limitations of text messaging. My excuse, finally, is simply love. Words are part of our inheritance, the legacy of our ancestors, and when we discover new ones and share them, we breathe life into them, and the word becomes flesh once again.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.