Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Words, Old and Obsolete but Powerful Words

Post by Jerry
I have watched with heavy heart in recent years what I see as a progressive butchering of the English language. Technology (e.g., texting) and current culture (e.g., Twitter) truncate our ideas into consonant laden gibberish. Get it said in 140 characters or forget it. I wonder how shallow our ties with each other become, how sterile our relationships in such an environment. And if we never express deeper emotions, more complex thoughts, does our mind retain the capacity to do so over time? Are we becoming cardboard cutouts to each other?  “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning needed 498 characters to answer that question.
I railed against this trend in Facebook posts and blogs, using, I thought, a powerful metaphor, “Turning English into Pablum.” That summarized the whole sloppy mess really well, at least for me. Then, to my surprise, I find that no one knows what Pablum is. I publish essays speaking of a person’s morals or “his mettle, honed by the Carborundum of life,” Readers say, What’s that?” and they probably don’t know what “mettle” is either. One more example; “Oh don’t be such a Pollyanna.” Hint: that one dates from 1920.
These are just three examples, there are many. I’m now in my 8th decade and these words remain active vocabulary for me.  I used a Carborundum whetstone to sharpen my Boy Scout knives, fed my children Pablum, and have, like Pollyanna, been overcome with blind optimism occasionally. But I must sound like I’m talking a foreign language to some, perhaps many, readers.
So what to do? I have no answer, but the generic question for emerging authors to answer for themselves is this: How often in an essay is it permissible to cause the reader to consult a dictionary? And if we don't, is the future envisioned in Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows about to become our present?

Do you have words that are important to your voice that others fail to understand?


Anonymous said...

Completely and totally, yes. And I'm far from my 8th decade. The worst was when I told someone the joke about the agnostic, dyslexic insomniac who was awake into the wee hours every night wondering whether there really was a dog. Then I had to define agnostic.... and dyslexic ... and insomniac...

I love words with precision, but not everyone knows all of them.

Deborah Nielsen said...

Seems like social media, texting, the Internet, and the current fashion in publishing to forego complicated descriptive prose is leading to a dumbing down of the English language. One of my favorite words really isn't a word, or at least it wasn't before the movie, 'Mary Poppins' came out: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Jerry Eckert said...

Deborah, You are going to hate me for this but I can't resist. Only last week I heard of the trials and tribulations of Mahatma Gandhi. Seems he went barefoot and developed lots of callouses on his feet. He was physically infirm most of his life because he didn't eat well, and he suffered chronic bad breath.
Which made him a "Super calloused fragile mystic plagued by halitosis."

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