In Chicago, in a downtown courtroom, lawyer Edward Greenspan won’t let Conrad Black take the stand.
The problem is Mr. Black’s fondness for whacking big words: tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective “braying”), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes), to list just a few of his verbal smatterings. Mr. Greenspan fears the Lord’s lingualism will turn off the jury.
He continues with a professor who says “One has to tell students in journalism school to express themselves simply, because they have been taught in high school to use big words in an effort to impress their professors” and another who says kids who don’t have a good vocabulary are at “considerable risk of continued low achievement.” Then comes a section about how the Educational Testing Service has been de-emphasizing vocabulary on the SATs, contrasted with the new National Vocabulary Contest to honor kids who know lots of words.
All this is fine, and written in an engaging style (“The Hit Parade of the top 50 words on the SAT… includes easy passes such as exculpate (to free from blame or guilt) but also yataghan, a guardless sword used in Muslim countries. It does not include yegg (a travelling burglar or safecracker) or yapp (a form of bookbinding), words your correspondent found while he was looking up yataghan“); alas, Mr. Brown then succumbs to the universal journalistic disease of setting up straw men to create an artificial battle of the sort beloved by hacks the world over, and when the subject is vocabulary, you just know one of the straw men is going to be those nasty linguists:
Where the argument over the importance of big words is now set to rage anew, however, is in universities across North America, in the Next Great Battle between the linguists and the logophiles.
The linguists, who have the upper hand at the moment, are very much of a type. They tend to be acolytes of American scholar William Labov, who developed the concept of code-switching. Standard vocabulary doesn’t need to be taught, the Labovites claim, because there’s no such thing as a standard vocabulary…
Some of the most militant linguists are Canadian. Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. “I think it’s partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change.”
Betwixt, for instance, “is just an old-fashioned word. So you shouldn’t use it. Nefarious, people don’t understand it, so don’t use it. I think it does put a distance between you and especially young people if you use an old-fashioned word. True, some people like to be old-fashioned. But I think the world is changing so rapidly that we should change with it. So if you don’t explain what it means, you waste people’s time.”
And the pleasure, the actual fun of knowing and using and privately sharing a word like, say, sciagraphy?
“My advice to people is to get pleasure out of explaining things clearly. You have to give up things you love. But then you can have a really great connection with people.”
I wonder how many linguists he had to canvass to find one who was willing to go on record discouraging people from using unusual words? But hey, once you find him, he becomes a representative sample! And then, of course, you can go on to mock linguists for using big words themselves: “The most recent issue of the International Journal of Lexicography, the go-to tome for learned language leaders, features an article with the title ‘Linguistic Lightbulb Moments: Zeugma in Idioms.’”
He takes a break for an amusing four-paragraph riff on the fun of using zeugma, then continues: “But not for the contemporary anti-vocabulary linguist, who values a word only in terms of its usefulness to a target audience,” and digs up a lexicographer (not the same thing as a linguist, but never mind), Katherine Barber (editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary), who explains the necessity for weeding words out of dictionaries while you add new ones and ends up making the absurd claim “We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language.” (I add the necessary disclaimer that Brown may have distorted, or even invented, the quote; reporters are notorious for playing fast and loose with the things the people they interview say—see Language Log.)
Then he quotes a couple of “logophiles” (read “cranks”): Thomas Delworth, an ambassador in Canada’s foreign service, objects to the use of fuck and fucking (what, those aren’t words?) and “blames the cheesy easiness of e-mail” (and, of course, “the linguists”) for “the barren state of our word cupboards.” And Robert Brustein, playwright, critic, teacher, and professional deplorer, finds “a deterioration in the capacity of students to use language… Imprecise writing… a laziness too. A kind of disconnect… the capacity to articulate what’s in your mind has declined…” Yes, kids today! They just don’t use language with the precision and grace of my generation! And the music they listen to, if you can call it music, and the clothes, and they have no respect for their elders and betters! If I ever start maundering like that, just shoot me. Can’t these people tell they’re just repeating the same cliches elders-and-betters have been proclaiming for millennia?
Ah, well. It’s a fun read, and I like his conclusion:
Because this is the solid thing about words, long or short: They wait for anyone who wants them, and cost nothing. You can use rare words for an ultra-efficient purpose, and you can juggle them for pleasure. But take the pleasure out of their use, and people stop using them.
“I don’t think there is any goal in having a vocabulary,” Thomas Delworth says from his perch toward the end of his rich spoken and written life. “I think it is its own reward. I can’t give you a cost-effectiveness breakdown. You simply have a somewhat larger grasp of this vast empire you might command.”
The alternative is that we use fewer and fewer of them, until the world is small enough that one word alone will suffice: Duh. (Interjection. Used to express actual or feigned ignorance or stupidity.)
(Thanks for the link, Derryl!)