a weekly column by
vol. 3 #7,
August 15, 1997
WORDS TO BE WISE
When I was teaching freshman English, one of my students explained in an essay how to go about applying for a job. "You should not wear your Sunday best," she said, "or wear your grubbies. Just a mediocre attire of clothing will be sufficient."
This was thirty years ago, but that girl was the sign of things to come. Could she have made it clearer that she was not in the habit of reading? That she had rarely, if ever, seen the word "mediocre" used in context? That when she looked up the word "average" in a thesaurus and saw "mediocre" as a synonym, she thought it meant the same thing?
Yes, it is easy to misunderstand a thesaurus, and to assume that because words have similar meanings, they have the same meaning. But if you read, you know better. Even if what you read is Nancy Drew books or Stephen King or Tom Clancy, you are learning more words, and you are seeing them used in contexts that make clear that you might like being described, for example, as "childlike," but would prefer not to be thought of as "childish."
When I complain that our kids don't read much, I am not exactly joining the old foofs out there who think their inability to locate France on a map or place the Civil War in the right century means they're dumb. There are plenty of bright kids out there. It's even hard to argue that they don't know very much, because in fact they know rather a lot--it's just different from what we want them to know.
But there may well be a measurable difference between their brains and ours, because most of them are being raised to watch and listen rather than to read. Most conversation, most scripts for televisions and movies, require, at most, about 10,000 words, out of more than 650,000 words the English language has to offer us. Because books and newspapers and magazines use much wider vocabularies, readers understand far more words (which is why one of the hallmarks of readers is knowing a lot of words you have no idea how to pronounce). Since words are what we think WITH, the absence of words begins to matter. And not just because you risk making a fool of yourself with solecisms like "Arabs wear turbines on their head," or "The dog ran across the lawn emitting whelps all the way."
What matters about having enough words is the precision in thought, the distinctions in meaning words make possible. It matters in discussions of life and death whether you are using the terms "euthanasia," or "murder," or "assisted suicide" or "right-to-die, " and whether you understand the nuances of their meanings. "Euthanasia" is bloodless, abstract, impersonal. The next two words force you to consider the specific person involved, and whether she was given a choice about her own dying. In using the word "murder," we say, in no uncertain terms, no, she was not. By using "assisted suicide," we say, as if it's proven, that she chose death, but needed help, which was an act of mercy. "Right-to-die" is also an abstraction, both a term for the courtroom and a term of attitude, fraught with that American obsession with our right to do what we damn well please when we damn well want to do it as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else.
If this issue is being argued by some people talking about murder, and other people talking about right-to-die, are they even discussing the same issue? Can they even make clear to each other what their fundamental assumptions are? Let alone hammer out a policy that addresses the concerns of both? After all, in this new era of managed care, even "right-to-die" advocates must be a little worried about "right to die" being invoked to mean "too expensive to be kept alive."
The words we choose matter. Think of any great speeches or lines of poetry and substitute words at random from the thesaurus and see what you get:
Eighty-seven years ago, or thereabouts, a bunch of guys put together a new government with, you know, this idea that all of us were equal.
"Four score and seven years ago" was said on a battlefield, by a President, in commemoration of the sacrificed lives of thousands of young men. They were words that sounded, as they needed to, momentous and weighty, suited both to the office of the person speaking them, and to the solemnity of the occasion. They were words that honored the dead, and resonated of the King James Bible. Delivered at a time when many in the north had lost their enthusiasm for this war, the rest of the speech explained the high purpose for which these men had died--for nothing less than preserving the entire idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people. Rarely have such insignificant prepositions--of, by, and for--carried such force and meaning.
Exact words matter, whether the speaker aims for high truth or comedy:
Candy is fine
But liquor is faster.
What a terrible thing to do to poor Ogden Nash. Yes, this roughly means the same thing as his words. But meaning is not everything. As John Ciardi says, it's not just WHAT the poem means, but HOW the poem means that counts.
Good writing and good thinking require words by the bucket. All kinds of them:
You need good abstract words, because without them you can't think about ethics or religion or government, or why you need any of these things. (Leo Rosten says that in Yiddish there is no word for "charity"--the only word that roughly corresponds to it is a word that means "justice." Do you wonder that even the poorest households in the shtetl put aside money for those who had no homes?)
But you need good concrete words to make those abstractions mean something--don't say "the Church" to mean both the pronouncements of a Pope, and nuns showing little girls how to jump rope. Don't say "the government" when you mean James Lee Witt giving out checks to people who lost their wedding pictures, their children's clothes, their furniture, their homes, to a raging river. You need words that enlist all five senses, to help the people you're talking to or writing for see and hear and feel the world you're talking about. When Terry Pratchett describes a dog that is a blot on the landscape as "halitosis with a wet nose," you don't just SEE that dog; you smell it too. You have, in fact, a complete "revolting little dog" experience.
We need words for outrage. We need blasphemous words, and shocking words. In moments of strong emotion, we need expletives, words that are outside the normal range of permitted language. We need to be able to say "Dammit," and "Jeee-zus" and other even more offensive words. But the odd thing about this is that the words remain powerful ONLY if they are used infrequently. When somebody uses the F word as both verb and adjective in every sentence, the word stops meaning anything to the listener except that that person lacks vocabulary, manners and sense.
What common use has done to limit the power of blasphemy to shock, word inflation has done to the power of words that used to describe horrific events. "Disaster" and "catastrophe" used to be words reserved for things like Hurricane Andrew, but they are now routinely used to describe people's messy desks and love lives. The word "Holocaust" should properly be reserved for the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews, or at least, in its original fiery sense, to describe something like the firebombing of Dresden, but I have noticed even this word is creeping into casual and trivial use--"if this isn't dealt with for three weeks when I'm gone, it will be a holocaust." Trivializing these words trivializes the events and makes us lose our ability to understand them as overwhelming human tragedies.
The Sundays are dead right when they sing "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will finish me off." When Crayola called one of its pinkish-beige crayons "flesh" color, God knows what they left little black and brown and yellow kids thinking their bodies were covered with. Words have power to wound, to heal, to determine what we are able to think.
Our kids have plenty of brains, and they know a lot. But without enough words to think with, they will have no choice but to believe whatever stupid things occur to them. And if they lack the words to think with, they will forever be the prey of the politicians and high-priced advertising people who do have the words.
So go home and read to your kids, tonight, O.K.? Take them to the library. It's not just magic and wonder you give them when you put a book in their hands. It's a toolbox for the mind.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.