Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Word, Please

As writers and as readers, our world is populated with words – big words, little words, fun words, obscure words, plain words, old words, new words, all kinds of words.
But I wonder if that isn’t changing. I don’t have a particularly big vocabulary but I do respect the wonder and the variety of the English language. My parents were both ‘word’ people who instilled in me a love of reading and an awareness of the magic of words. They also taught me that words are tools of communication, meant to convey the exact nuances of thought from one person to another – not for confusion, or pride of vocabulary, or showing off. Words are the essential element of communication.
Except if you are joking, of course.
Words were like toys in my home, to be enjoyed and played with and explored. My father, a master wordsmith if there ever was one, had a party piece that I remember from earliest childhood. To my shame, I was almost grown before I realized it wasn’t a regulation nursery rhyme. Daddy – and later I – could stop a cocktail party dead with this little bit of doggerel.
“When you oraculate or pontificate, consistently utilize pedantic polysyllabic persiflage. If such a pedagogic course proves egregiously inefficacious, obfuscate.” (© 1998 Janis Susan May)
I can remember both of us being asked in what language we were speaking. Now while that made a tremendous party piece, of course one wouldn’t use a spate of language like that in day-to-day conversation. My parents were careful to teach me  that in the everyday world a good vocabulary is the mark of an educated person, and that one should respect the erudition of another by treating them as you wished to be treated yourself. I mean, that’s just common sense, isn’t it? Can you imagine two adult co-workers conversing like this – “Noon. Hungry. Want eat?” “Yes. Want food. Go now?”
By comparison, it would be equally hard to accept – though just as easy to understand – if those same two co-workers said, “Helios is at the median, and my gastro-intestinal tract is desiccating from insufficient nutrition. Shall we ambulate forth and peruse fortification?” “I concur. Shall we egress momentarily?”
Both examples are ridiculous, I admit, but somewhere in the middle is what is regarded as ‘average communication English’ – the language we all use and understand every day. Or at least, so I thought.
What has brought all this to mind was a review I received. It was a very good review, if not a downright fantastic one; the reader liked the story and the characters quite a lot. What made my eyes pop open was the complaint that I was both (theoretically) smug and showing off my knowledge by using too many big words. ‘Stentorian”  “Plebeian” “Obstreperous” were three mentioned.
Excuse me, but aren’t those fairly common words? They were when I grew up.
Does using words of more than one syllable and that are perhaps not used every single day make one a smug show off?
Perhaps so. Not long ago I was discussing something with someone at a family gathering when he held up his hand and glared at me. “If you’re going to talk to me,” he said with a steely smile, “you’re going to have to do it in words a dumb working man like me can understand.”
I gaped at him uncomprehendingly. I thought I had been using rather simple English.
And why should I be the one to accommodate his lack? Why shouldn’t he open his mind and learn a few new words? There are libraries and night schools and public TV shows – even dictionaries, for Heaven’s sake! His answer? “Because I already know all the words I need.”
I was getting angry. I asked him if he liked hamburgers. He looked at me as if I were truly mad, and said of course. Then I asked him if he would like hamburgers for every meal, every day, forever. No lasagna, no Mexican food, nothing but hamburgers. He said of course not – it would be too boring. Smiling, I asked him if it weren’t just as boring to have just one word for something. He said no, that it was efficient.
I didn’t throttle him. I was tempted, but I didn’t. Sometimes I regret it, too.
Now it would be very easy to dismiss this little story as just an encounter with one rather ignorant man and leave it at that, but he’s not alone. I read very broadly in a number of genres from a number of time periods, from the early 1800s to the present, and the decay of the language is startling. Words that were commonplace a hundred years ago for all education levels are vanished now. Words have become shorter, more repetitious and fewer. If language were some form of wildlife, it would be labeled as endangered.
Isn’t it supposed to go the other way? Isn’t a language supposed to expand and diversify and develop over the years instead of decline? Yes, we have added words, but they are largely derived from contractions, corruptions and techno-speak. The internet has added an initial-only deviance – LMAO, LOL, ROFL – which obviates the need for language at all! Such short-cuts should be anathema to writers – after all, our business is words – but so many have embraced the practice it’s embarrassing.
And where does this stop? Do we keep ostracizing words that are obscure or polysyllabic or redundant from the common lexicon? What am I saying? We’ve been doing it for two generations, and the language is suffering. We are sliding at an alarming speed toward the “Hungry. Want eat” simplicity of the caveman. Or the determinedly ignorant.

Janis Susan May Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
              Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
              Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.


Nancy said...

Susan, I agree with you that we've lost wonderful words. When I need a "fix," I read books that will give me a good one!

For me, a key in writing is to use words and phrases, comparisons and references that the characters would use. I know you do that!

Thanks for a thought-provoking blog!

Nancy Haddock

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

hungry. want eat? reads like texts I get from the grandkids, without periods or question marks or capitol letters. If I ask a question I'm must as likely to get back idk instead of an comprehensive answer. part of it is to increase their thumb speed. another part is pure laziness. both are destroying the ability of the new generations to read and write coherantly. idk doesn't get it when attempting to stumbled through a proposed amendment to vote on. idk won't help them through even a driver's manual. From what I've been seeing, the schools are falling behind in even teaching reading with too many of the younger generation not wanting to read because they can't spell. A long winded way to say I agree, our language is going backward.