Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where will all the words go?

I worry about the English language.
In recent posts and comments, fellow chicks have used words like: funnily, imprecations, maledictions and execrations. How many people under, say forty, know what those words mean and use them in their own speech or writing? Not a majority I am willing to bet. (Hayley is an exception and there are others under forty too, but the majority?)
Would the ‘victims’ of my derision recognize a simile or a metaphor or heavens above, an onomatopoeia? Do they know a word that describes precisely what they mean?
I visited a specialist awhile back. He had a medical student question me first and then she reported back to him. I tried to explain to her that the pains were in my eye and then straight back to a spot on the back of my skull. I told her that it was LIKE a knitting needle in my eye and pushing straight back to “here”. She told the doctor my complaint was that I thought I had a knitting needle in my eye. Simile? Metaphor? She obviously wouldn’t know one if it bit her. (By the way, it turned out to be a symptom of a silent migraine).
Two of my sons often said to me, “You know how you always use big words Mom?” They and their friends used ‘little words’ because vocabulary was not a subject taught to them nor emphasized in school. They both, at one time or another, tried to use a big word in a sentence and asked me if they had used it correctly. It killed me to have to say, “No, that’s an adverb. You need an adjective there.” I hated to disappoint them but I was delighted that they were trying to gain some vocabulary. They are not stupid men, but they were not learning in school how to use the language in its full glory.
English is a wonderful language with words that give precision to description.
Obvious are the various words for vehicle: car, carriage, truck, conveyance, cart, wagon etc. Each can be described more precisely, e.g. instead of the word carriage, we can use: landau, phaeton, four-in-hand, chariot, rig, brougham, surrey, buggy or shay. Most of us wouldn’t know a landau from a Lamborghini but a landau gives a sense of elegance, wealth, gracefulness and is much more descriptive and evocative than carriage. “Every evening, the elderly duchess was seen sitting alone in her landau as it moved slowly around the square.”
A heroine can be beautiful, pretty, cute (arghh), or, she can be vivacious, inimitable, attractive, alluring, a goddess, a knockout, a Venus, handsome, lovely, beauteous, exquisite, becoming, ravishing or even pulchritudinous. A hero can be handsome, beautiful, imposing, large, vital etc. (They are hardly ever pulchritudinous). There are so many words that strike a picture in the readers’ mind.
During one of many ‘discussions’ I have had with Youngest Son, I mourned the seeping away of the richness of the English language through disuse. He had no sympathy for me. It is modern usage, I was told, and it isn’t necessary to use words that create a precise understanding of a concept. Nowadays, they simply ‘get it’.
Is it modern usage or is it modern abuse.
By the way, my sons now use ‘big words’ too.
All is not lost.

24 comments:

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh Connie, I heartily share your grief at the slow death of the language (and thank you for the nod in your post, haha). I also love that you mentioned the word pulchritudinous, which I have yet to find proper occasion to use.

One of my favourite English profs lamented the same decline of vocabulary, talking about how in his grandfather's day, 'presently' meant soon, and now it's just come to signify 'now' because people don't get the difference between 'present' and 'presently'. I loved his quote to accompany the anecdote: some words are too sharp for us to use properly, and should be left in the cupboard for more qualified generations.

I agree and understand that language isn't a static entity, and that it will inevitable change and develop, but regardless of changes, diversity and clarity are still important. I always find it a little frustrating when I hear writers getting suggestions to cut a great word down to something basic for the sake of editorial standards. I understand the decision, but I think it's a shame to strip the '50-cent words' (as I think Anita called them once) rather than leave them in and encourage people to learn unfamiliar terms.

Captain Hook said...

I gave up hope for English language and the younger generations the day "ain't" made it into the dictionary.

Karen said...

Okay, I'll admit it. I don't know how to pronounce pulchritudinous nor was I familiar with its meaning. So many words so little time.

My son is in grade nine and for the first time ever English is his favorite subject instead of his most dreaded, hated subject. Why? Because his teacher, who is passionate about literature, encourages lengthy discussions about what their reading and how to interpret it. He doesn't dumb it up for them.

Am I guilty of slashing at the english language by relying on slang and over used words? Maybe just a little bit (or a lot). Your post made me think today, Connie, so thank you.

Helena said...

Hey, Connie, you've really hit a nerve today. I agree totally that we are losing a great treasure trove when we allow language skills to deteriorate. Language is continually evolving, but that should enrich not diminish our ability to express ourselves.

The 'rule' of not using a big word when a small one will do leads to a level of mediocrity that I'm not interested in pursuing. The choice should always be on the side of most descriptive, most precise, and relevancy in the sentence. Whether the word is long and unusual, or short and commonplace, shouldn't be the issue.

Hayley, the 'at present/presently' issue is one of my pet peeves, too. Another is the current overuse of the expression 'one-off'. I cannot comprehend how this became accepted when it comes from the concept of a 'one-of-a-kind' situation. How did the word 'of' become 'off'?

I grew up in a family where the dictionary was kept as close as the telephone directory. Hardly a meal went by without some word or other being checked for spelling, pronunciation, or meaning.

Thanks for the food for thought that you have put on the menu today, Connie.

ban said...

LOVE my dictionary, it's worn and battered, taped and very close at hand ! i'd have liked to include myself with hayley but ... i had to look up pulchritudinous, though i knew what it meant by the context. another thing people overlook. did you as a kid know every word in the books you read ? no, you learned them from the context. (if you weren't motivated to look them up) i loved figuring out the meaning of new words as i read, it made me feel grown up.

connie said...

Hayley
Newspaper reporters have to write to a grade eight audience. Cutting out the right word annoyed me every time I had to do it. The hell of it was, the editor didn't know the correct short word either.
Where did 'prioritize come from?
connie

connie said...

Captain Hook
My english teacher freaked every time anyone used 'ain't'. And, "Ain't ain't in the dictionary" drove her right around the bend.
I don't think we can give up on the English Language though. As writers, I think we have to continue to use 'big words' in the hope our audience will appreciate th precision of the right words.
connie

connie said...

Karen,
Blessings on your son's teacher!
Reading good literature and thinking about it is almost a lost art.
I think slang has its place in our writing. Sometimes an overused word has its place too - as a replacement for pulchritudinous perhaps! But I try to avoid overused words as much as I can.
connie

connie said...

Helena,
My Dad had a grade four education because the country school was burned down (1913) and not replaced for several years. Yet, he had an excellent vocabulary, beautiful handwriting and he usually did arithmetic in his head. He was well spoken. I don't think I was as well educated at the end of my grade four experience. I do have an advantage in that I studied Latin for four years. Studying Latin not only gave us a 'one up' in figuring out what new words meant, it was also a great teacher of English grammar. At the time, I wished Cicero had taken up a different occupation. His writings were very complex, wordy and drove us all crazy because his form was to put all the verbs at the end of an essay! But, in retrospct, I am glad to have studied Latin, if not Cicero.
If I can find it again, I will send everyone a copy of an early 20th century exam paper.
connie

connie said...

ban,
I love my battered old Oxford Concise too. When I look up one word, I find several more that I just have to look at too. The first word at the very top of the page and the last word at the bottom are not only handy when flipping through on the hunt for a definition, they are also enticing.
Yes, context is my first line of defence when I come across a new word. My grade six teacher's name was Miss Clatworthy. I swear her given names were Look It Up.
connie

Erika said...

I must admit I don't know how to pronounce the word pulchritudinous means and if I hadn't read it in a sentence I would have no idea what it means and I took vocabulary in school. While I can and do appreciate the English language if I'm reading a story with too many words that I've never heard of or am unsure of how to pronounce I'll put it down and never pick it up again. Hence why I never finished reading The Da Vinci Code. Too much French, although that could just be my lack of patience.

ANYHOW,I'm probably the minority but I just thought I'd add my two cents. :)

Suse said...

Hey Connie, you have a great discussion going today. I found it interesting that you threw pulchritudinous into your blog. About 5 or 6 years ago, there was a young man selling t-shirts at a craft sale with "big" words on it. One of the words was pulchritudinous. If a person could pronounce the word correctly, he would take 10% or so off the price of the t-shirt. My daughter was about 15 or 16 at the time. We both liked the idea of these fantastic words on a t-shirt. Janelle pronounced the word correctly and got her reduced rate on the t-shirt. She loved to wear the shirt and make people try to pronounce pulchritudinous. And then she'd tell everyone that she was pulchritudinous.

I use to love my dictionary and thesaurus, but now I love dictionary.com and thesaurus.com.

Today I used the word correlation with one of my students, and then I wondered if I should have used something simpler. I would hate to have to dumb down too much of my vocabulary at a post secondary educational institute.

I think words are fascinating, so I hope they'll be around for a long time in all their wonderful forms.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Connie, great post!

I love to use less common words in my writing but still keep them within the realm of modern society or the era of my historical wips. I have to admit that most times I don't realize I'm using a less-common word until my hubby gives me this 'look' and the kids smile at me.

Actually, my 10 yr old son loves to try out and use new words. At the moment, he accurately slips the word 'random' at least twice in every conversation and he does't stumble over 3 and 4 syllable words. (He attempted NaNoWriMo last year.)

Hayley - you mentioned me speaking of the 50-cent words. It was in a blog post I did on judges' comments. Because it relates to today's post, I'll quote it here:
...(derisively) is what I call a 50¢ word. Since we're to keep our vocabulary level down, I've heard it's best to avoid words the average reader might not understand and use what I call 5¢ words instead. I make my choice of words based upon what would be understood by a dear friend of mine who devours romances but doesn't have the command of language you obviously do. (Yeah, I can tell you're sharp.:-) You may disagree, and that's fine. I just want to pass on what I've learned the hard way.LOL I believe it's the first time I've been called 'sharp'. I kinda like it. :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
Okay, I admit it. I had to look up pulchritudinous. I think I have a reasonably decent vocabulary but obviously not a great one.

I remember studying vocabulary in grade school. It was right up there with handwriting. Are these things even practiced in school anymore?

Thank you for a very thought provoking blog and for making me pull out my dictionary.

Jana

Janet C. said...

Great post, Connie. Words are a writer's brush, transforming a blank canvas to one of wonder and awe. A tool to craft a work of art. If writers are 'dumbing down' their work, if they follow formula to create story - then they are basically painting by numbers with a commercial palette of ready made colors. Boring.

In relation to this, I worry about even those 5 cent words in the hands of a generation of texters! I've seen first hand a young woman of that generation who can not write a simple business letter (spelling, grammar, oh, my).

OK, my old lady rant is over now. I'm sounding more and more like my mother every day :)

connie said...

Erika
I know what you mean. I react the same way to too many words I either guess how to pronounce or gloss over. I didn't finish the da Vinci Code either but that is because I thought it was nonsense. I really hate it when writers of historical romance use gaelic names. Loraigh?
connie

connie said...

Erika
I know what you mean. I react the same way to too many words I either guess how to pronounce or gloss over. I didn't finish the da Vinci Code either but that is because I thought it was nonsense. I really hate it when writers of historical romance use gaelic names. Loraigh?
connie

connie said...

Suse, And I bet Janelle is too! I like the word because it is so 'unbeautiful' but I admit that this is the first time I have ever used it.
connie

connie said...

Hi Anita
I understand what mean about less common words. There is no point in using them if the reader doesn't understand them. On the other hand, how will they learn to understand them if we don't use them. A genuine Catch 22. I write the way I would speak or tell the story and let Husband tell me when a word has to go.
I suspect 50 cent words cost $5.99 plus tax now.
You're right. Romances should be a good read and not an exercise in reading.
connie

connie said...

Hi Jana,
I wonder if classrooms still have those green cards thumb tacked around the room. They contained the right way to form each letter of the alphabet. I thought it was cool to make my letters different. I still write W the way my then-hero-older-brother wrote his.
Husband has beautiful handwriting but not one of our four children does. They didn't study it in school. The oldest boy's handwriting is so small and cramped I think he could copy the Bible on the head of a pin and still have room left over for countable angels - well, maybe not quite...
connie

connie said...

Janet,
The other blog contained Husband's complaints about the 'texters' of this world. 4U2. Can they spell 'too' and know there are still 'to' and 'two' to be considered. He used to come home practically frothing at the mouth when month end reports came in. He was Chief of Education and fielded reports from several employees, most of them young university grads. Many of them were teachers! "I can't make head nor tail of it!" "She doesn't finish sentences and she doesn't use verbs." "How the hell am I supposed to make sense of this?" It was essential that the reports be accurate and precise which meant he had to call people in and interview them to get the information he needed. I haven't taught school in nearly 40 years. You have more current information on what is taught these days. Did you teach how to write various kinds of letters and reports?
connie

Janet C. said...

You could say I was a stickler - pushing some of the other curriculum content to the back burner when issues of language came up (firm believer in 'if you can't read or write, health and computers aren't going to do you much good in life). Maybe one of the many reasons I have for not teaching now :)

connie said...

Janet
I had David 'Tiger' Williams in my last class, one of the reasons I packed it in. Besides, I was a medal winning two major history and geography grad and I was stuck with a lifetime position teaching English. It was not appealing.
connie
p.s. the history teacher was an English major

Alan said...

In Windows vernacular, My Flavorite Malaprop is...

perogative

Despite that misnomer or malaprop being in majority useage, the actual word is one which means before (i.e., "pre") any question (rogative, as in interrogatory), so the actual word is prerogative.

Turn back the tide of malaprops.

Use the real word.

Alan