I intended to post this earlier, but my outrage over the cuts to literature funding in the Ontario Arts Council sidetracked me. We now return to your regularly scheduled rant.
I’ve had three reminders this week that it is the time of year when we take stock and resolve to do better. I caught the tail end of a news article about Lake State University’s annual Unicorn List of words that should be banned, my niece posted a link to a book by Steven Pinker on language use, and my friend Jennifer tweeted a link to an article on the top twenty-five irritating business phrases. Yes, boys and girls, it is the time of year when we are reminded of our individual and collective offences against language and meaning.
What you intend to say is important; it is equally important how you say it. Verbal quirks such as turning? a statement? into multiple questions? or, like adding meaningless, like, words, y’know, or even, y’know, phrases, right, into a sentence that, like, add nothing to its meaning, y’know, are bloody irritating. They make it difficult for the listener to stick with you to the end of the sentence. It’s still possible, however, to glean a correct meaning from such a sentence. The most damaging offences are those against meaning, and they are legion.
I once pointed out to a presenter in a meeting that “meretricious”, the word he’d used, conveyed the exact opposite of what he intended to say, which was “meritorious”. He pointed at me and cried out, “English major! English major!” His response shocked me; he didn’t give a damn that he’d just called someone’s work cheap and showy, without substance, when he’d meant it was worthy and excellent, and he also mocked me as a snobbish academic because I did know the correct word. *
I’m a writer, a storyteller and, occasionally, a teacher. Words are the stock in trade for those professions, the tools we use in our work. Carpenters need to know when to use a plane and when to use sandpaper; doctors have to know when and where to use a speculum or tongue depressor; writers and speakers have to know which words will do the job and how to use them.
I realize that every profession has its jargon, the specialized words of the trade. The place to use those is when you’re talking to others who know the trade, or are learning it. When talking to people who don’t have that same specialized knowledge, it’s the mark of a true expert to be able to give information clearly and, if possible, without making the listener feel stupid.
I’ll admit I enjoy having an arsenal of sesquipedalian words, such as “sesquipedalian”, (essentially, a-foot-and-a-half long) and of smaller, obscure words like “wenis”(the flap of skin on the point of the elbow). I like knowing the proper names for things, even if I’m never likely to need those words in day-to-day conversation. I find as a poet that a large vocabulary gives me more off-the-cuff possibilities for rhyme. I also get a rather surprising amount of pleasure out of a new word. Perhaps it’s the same kind of pleasure a sports fan gets from knowing trivia about a favourite player. When I drag my big words out, it’s in the company of others who also enjoy them, or to make fun of myself.
So is correct, clear language strictly the business of elitist academic snobs – such as, apparently, yours truly? No, it is not. Until we develop telepathy, language is the tool we have to convey meaning. Even people who aren’t professional writers or speakers should know how to use their native tongue, its diction, punctuation and grammar. We can each make a commitment in this new year to make our words clear and understandable to our listeners or readers. Or, at the very least, as in the case of the presenter above, to avoid making ourselves look stupid by using words we don’t understand. If in doubt, look it up, say I.
And, now and again, compliment someone on how nice their wenis is looking today, just for a laugh.
*I’m also not an English major – my degree is in fine art and mediaeval studies.