Friday, July 29, 2005

Fruits of Language

Since when has “predominately” become a word? I’ve seen it in the writings of several people whose work I respect -- and countless people whose scrawlings I pore through nonetheless. It even passes muster with spell-check systems. I ask one simple question: Why? There was already a perfectly good adverbial offshoot of the old Latin, praedominari, which meant, approximately, “to be greater ” (in numbers or importance): for centuries, we have happily used the word “predominantly”. Was it absolutely necessary to butcher another perfectly functional -- and even artful -- word, to grow a new turn of phrase? Why -- and wherefore -- take a nice, clean, well-rooted verb and transplant it as an adverb, when there was already another lovely adverb just waiting to be put to that purpose?

Is it too much to ask that educated people stop depending upon their computers’ Spell-check programs, and actually think about the choice of words they use? I’m not asking exactly for the deepest of thoughts, after all. I doubt I could ever expect that, since I’m rarely able to pluck fruit from that vine, myself. But words are, after all, directly linked to ideas, images, artifacts. When you misuse a word, you are muddying the idea behind it.

I know I’ve complained about this problem before -- I dislike people who say “enormity” when they mean “hugeness”, who say “momentarily” when they mean “presently”, who say “presently” when they mean “currently”, and so on. When in flight, we are currently flying, we will land presently. The flight attendant who tells us that “we will be landing momentarily” distresses me, because I want to land for more than just a quick tap on the ground. Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a hot air balloon. I want down so I can stay down. 

And I understand that language is a living, changing, growing thing. Two hundred years ago, had somebody held out a piece of twisted metal and required of me to “fix this”, I would have been in my right mind to ask, “To which base?” Once upon a time, “fixing” something was not repairing (that change occurred in the very late 19th century), but causing it to be adhered to something else -- affixed. And, in my grandfather’s lifetime, “fix” came to be a noun, an arrangement in a gambling event. Slang usage does this sort of thing, in the land of communication. I can live with that. Sort of.

But when somebody uses a made-up word -- or misapplies a perfectly good term -- in an ostensibly serious context (be it jargon or not), it undermines the intent of the precious act of sharing words. Deliberate or no, obfuscation occurs. And clouded or inappropriate language usually leads to frustration, anger, and other, less desirable results (when was the last time an honest person -- or even a politician -- openly waxed rapturous over reading pages drafted in “legalese”?). 

It may be charming or quaint when a tot asks for a snack “to tie me ogres”, but by the time a person has been through at least 12 years of classroom experience, he might be expected to pick up a few pointers on how to make himself better understood. If he is getting paid to write, the expectations ought to be even higher. He might actually have encountered a dictionary and a thesaurus, and had instruction on their use (these texts are even available online, for greater accessibility). Both are highly effective tools, if one chooses to apply them. Think of them as the tractor equipment for working in the field of communication. 

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear .
Matthew 13:4 - 9 , KJV


Words are the fruits of our thoughts, beliefs, and dreams. They are the seed and substance of human culture. Like any seeds, some wither without care, some are choked by thorns, and sometimes, even the best get strewn among the rocks. Words need careful attention as to which ones to choose, where and when to plant them, when to thin them out, and how to best apply them for maximum benefit.

Sow and attend your words carefully, or you spread a famine of thought.

1 comment:

EclectEcon said...

Geez, do I ever agree with this posting.

Sadly, I fear I still use many words incorrect



ly.