Saturday, March 21, 2015

Words Matter

Words Matter

 The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. 

 ~Mark Twain

            Words matter, whether written or spoken.

As a publisher I sometimes receive submitted manuscripts with poorly constructed sentences, typos, misspellings and obvious indications of ignorance of the meanings of words or, at the least, lousy proofreading.

            Maybe email is at fault. Tweeting and texting and their lackadaisical attention to spelling, grammar and capitalization play important roles. Or maybe it’s just plain old indifference on the part of people more concerned with telling their digital friends where they are or what (or how much) they drank or smoked last night than they are in using proper language, spelling and punctuation to convey something more meaningful and/or interesting.   

            Whatever the cause of this lack of interest in the proper use of language, it is an appalling circumstance that only exaggerates the increasingly poor communication traits among many elements of society.

            Like, I mean, you know. You hear what I’m sayin’?

            Let’s not go their.

            See what I mean? If you don’t, you just made my point.

            Sadly, the improper use of our language is encouraged by song (and rap) lyrics, movies, television and many role models (sports stars, movie stars and others who, for no evident reason, are simply, stars).

            Even more discouraging is the way our language is being hijacked and bastardized by government “leaders” who have mastered the art of what George Orwell termed “doublethink,” a term he coined in the literary classic 1984 to describe the results of the government’s use of language.  Even before the publication of 1984 which came out in 1949, he wrote: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (From Politics and the English Language, 1946.)

            To illustrate the point about how political speech can (and does) convince many listeners that less is more or vice versa, he included the following in 1984.”
War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

            Others have been equally disdainful of the way politicians use language.

            For example, George Will believes “a politician's words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience.”

The H-word: Hate

            The heinous word “hate” has become increasingly commonplace. “I hate that man” (or woman), “I hate all (fill in the blanks with your least favorite political party),” “Don’t you just hate that song?” “I hate school,” and therefore “I hate to write themes.”

            Does one actually hate? Or does one simply “dislike” certain men or women, specific politicians and their policies, some music and various aspects of school?

The ubiquitous and anonymous rants on the Internet clearly illustrate the widespread use of the word by what appears to be a large percentage of society.  

            When one uses a word often enough to describe feelings, emotions or even people, one begins to believe it. This is often true, even if “hate,” for example, is the descriptive word used initially even though the feelings might not have been as strong as indicated by the word itself.

Back to Language in General

            Not too long ago I enjoyed televised “discussions,” “conversations” and “debates.” Lately, however, many of them have become little more than shouting matches where the loudest voice (including that of the so-called “moderator”) wins.

            I suspect noted author Philip Roth would agree. In his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, he wrote: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn't just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you've got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren't only bombs and bullets — no, they're little gifts, containing meanings!”

            Too many “guests” on TV programs seek to impress by coming up with rambling sentences designed to show they have some four-syllable words in their vocabulary and little else. In fact, David Ogilvy, author of Confessions of an Advertising Man, confided that “our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”

            Television, and its reliance on advertising revenue for survival, contributes mightily to the demolition of proper language use. Thank God for the remote, however, for without it we would be even more completely inundated with sound in which the only decipherable word is  the name of the product.

            As advertising blather becomes the nation's normal idiom, language becomes printed noise,” says George Will.

            Frankly, I’m worried.

            If the members of the general public, or a good portion of it, are not at least minimally educated in the proper use of language and in how it can be (and often is) perverted for causes that range from political to social and from fund raising to salesmanship, powerful articulate leaders will have their ways with us and the results will benefit only them and not the rest of us.  

            Even that great philosopher Robin Williams is quoted as having said “no matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

            Unfortunately, I tend to agree with Aesop who, in Aesop’s Fables, wrote: “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

I also agree with Abraham Lincoln who said: “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and resolve all doubt.”

            So I’ll shut up.

1 comment:

  1. Larry, a great article and a thoughtful reminder of the power and responsibility of word-smithing.

    And amen to the remote, which we also frequently wield toward the screen -- though we suspect many pundits and politicians calculate their rhetoric and showmanship. (It's more a matter of cave lector for viewers to recognize their Machiavellian machinations.)

    Keep up the good work. Raspberry Creek Books rocks!