Putting the power of words back in the mouths of the people.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Flying the Big Words
One of life’s most perplexing questions has to do essentially with self-improvement. When one does a rare and laudable thing, that is, when one goes about the much-despised task of strengthening one’s vocabulary base, and succeeds—what next?
You have the new words in hand, so to speak. They merely wait to be tossed like darts, vehicles of intellectual precision. Unfortunately, the darts have to emerge from between your lips. It’s here that things can get painful.
Earlier today I watched as one of my brothers made a valiant but ill-fated attempt to put some lingual clout in his trash-talking. He made a reference to the “ig-NO-min-ee-us”* end that awaited the opposing volleyball team (of which I was a member). Instantly voices rang out (my mom and another bro, both on my team) to correct him: “That’s ‘ig-NAWM-in-us!'”*
Needless to say, my brother's smack lost some of its snap. Out of pity, I won’t mention his name.
All this brings up a fairly urgent question which is all the more pressing for an online community of linguaphiles. Once we’ve acquired the verbal firepower, how do we get started deploying it—in real-time? We taxi the big words out of the hangar and there they wait, engines idling, on the runway. How do we get them in the air?
The question is made all the more perplexing by the fact that many words are not apparently pronounced the way they ought to be pronounced. We read them silently, rehearse them carefully, pronounce them with panache, and wince at the result.
How to avoid such a faux pas? In the aftermath, the fact that the blunder was inspired by a bright and well-intentioned mind hardly soothes the sting.
Clearly, there are ways to get around this problem. What do you all suggest?
* The word, in case you’re totally in the dark, is ignominious. To be fair, it was a relatively ambitious term for recreational putdown. And yes, I do come from one of those twisted language/literature-loving families.
For awhile now I’ve sensed a need to add some kind of disclaimer to this blog. Why? For my own safety, of course. As the theologian James wrote, “For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2).
I haven’t yet arrived in terms of holistic perfection, and so, on a blog focusing on incisive language, the peril seems obvious. I can’t dodge verbal missteps indefinitely.
So here we go. Disclaimer:
My vocabulary may (or not) be flawless—but that’s all, strictly speaking, that you’re permitted to critique. I’m entitled to spelling eros, redundancy if I feel like repeating myself again, and even—I could sure use a latte right now—non sequitors. I can also employ apt clichés; if the glove fits, wear it. To sum up: in all matters not directly touching vocabulary, I’m untouchable. So ha!
In a dog-eat-dog world, I feel the need to pad my chances.*
*No, I’m not really serious. But we VRP activists will be judged by a higher bar…best not to be caught flat-footed.
Last week, a G.K. Chesterton quote was the catalyst that sent several of chasing a chancy but absorbing goal: Write a post using only one-syllable words.As the man said, “It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable...”
Clearly, this was a Pandora’s box that few would approach. Attempt it and fail, and you look pathetic. Attempt it and succeed, and you still might look sophomoric.
Nonetheless, three brave souls took the plunge. And arguably, (though this is open to debate) no reputations were critically damaged in the incident.
“My spouse sleeps and snores, and knows naught of my thoughts or deeds at this late hour. As a point of fact, said dogs snore as well, and are just as blind and deaf as to what might be on my mind or in my heart at this time--this time when no one should be up, least of all me.”
“[Robert] Frost: How I loved him, and the way he'd stroke my soul with his paths through the woods, and the way he made me feel as though he read me first and then wrote me, -drew me- next to the fence, on his horse - in each flake of snow.”
“You feel sick...You groan and slump down in front of the screen. You look in a school book and turn pages. You push your hands at the keys. You start to write for school. It will not be good but it will be done. It takes hours. You are not as smart as you are.”
Scintillating, eh? It’s not too late to join us. Then we’ll forever associate you with traits like “brave” and “smart” and “wise” and “real.” And who wouldn’t want that? If you don’t care to take a stab at the Chesterton Challenge, you should at least go read our posts and say complimentary things. In all sincerity, of course.
I’m curious how the writing process went for the others. I found it surprisingly cathartic, as if various unexpressed thoughts from my childhood were finally being articulated—or something. Simultaneously, it was quite hard. As I said earlier (wryly), "I think the task made small changes to my mind."Nonetheless, I feel a strengthened impulse to convey complex (profound?) ideas in the most simple and direct language possible. This is, refreshingly, in no way incompatible with the stated goals of this site.
I came across this provocative statement by G.K. Chesterton when I was paging through his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. His pronouncement must come as something as a challenge to us VRPers, though not an entirely unlooked-for one (see my statement re: "one-syllable flair").
But how does one respond to this throwing-down of the verbal gauntlet? And is anyone willing to try and write a post entirely with one-syllable words?*
Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable… The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.
* I'm thinking about it. If anyone else wants to give it a shot, your post will definitely be linked for instructional (and recreational) purposes.