Words Matter. Definitions Matter. Keep It Clear!

I was just thinking about language changing over time and how, in my gut, I don’t like it when English is treated badly (or lazily) in ways that – for whatever reason – get accepted into normal everyday usage. It’s good when language grows but too often it’s a case of importing one word, at the price of losing others.

There’s a lot of splendid slang that evolves organically into words that strike to the very heart of a thing. This slang deserves to become part of everyone’s vocabulary. Too often, though, bringing slang into the vernacular displaces other words that happen to be associated – wrongly considered as ‘updating’ the living language. Colloquial words often make up for gaps in vocabulary but carry with them a luddite ring-fencing that won’t play nicely with older conventional words.

I don’t like the way the older words get sidelined. Discovering new colloqual turns of phrase should be an enriching of the lexicon but these days vocabulary has been commodified.

The norm is now for slang to displace associated older words then begin a cycle, generations of new slang replacing prior generations of slang that’s become orthodox. This displace-replace wastes time, reinventing the wheel for every new word, and linguistic precision suffers. The universality of both old and new words get degraded. Slang is a mmm cipher and when words of one side are incomprehensible to the other, communication breaks down as both sides become isolated, divided.

I hate the bloviation of people who should know better; educated writers and professional communicators whose vocabulary isn’t small but whose word-use is vague or lazy. Broadsheet newspapers are full of this type of language. It’s synonymous with established, civilised good character but to me it’s pompous and just as bad as luddite colloquialism.

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort.

Here is a well-known Bible verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell writes “this is a parody, but not a very gross one.

Two main considerations are worth keeping in mind whenever you’re writing or reading someone else’s written content. These two considerations are how precisely the writer manages to recreate his intentions in the mind of the reader, and how far removed from the writer’s own background can the reader be, before there’s a breakdown between the intention of the writer and what’s recreated in the mind of the reader.

As a sidebar, these two considerations make up a good working criteria for judging the greatness of a piece of writing.

Whether writing is great (or not) shouldn’t be conflated with effectiveness. It’s possible to write an extremely effective piece of writing that speaks profoundly to a narrow demographic but for it to be impenetrable to anyone else. Read a scientific or esoteric political treatise and you’ll find most fall into this category.

With the caveat that greatness is a somewhat subjective conclusion – though not nearly so subjective, over time, as the popular critics of a particular generation would have us believe – the writer’s ability to precisely recreate his intentions in the mind of as diverse an audience as possible is a criteria as near to approaching objective as it’s possible to be. We may differ on how exactly we weight the importance of precision versus reader diversity but the principle is sound.

It’s accepted wisdom nowadays that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great work of literature. It’s not necessarily the most popular but anyone familiar with the play will marvel at Shakespeare’s use of language. He renders vividly Hamlet’s struggle against insanity into the mind of the reader (or audience) and, such is the play’s evocative language, many of its simile-rich soliloquy create permanent new metaphor in the English language. At the same time Hamlet is universal enough to have been translated into over a hundred languages. The precision of Shakespeare’s writing is undeniable. The diversity of readership is clear. Hamlet scores extremely high in both criteria; therefore it is great writing.

Greek mythology: Prometheus stealing the fire of knowledge from the Gods of Olympus, to give to human beings so they can be free.

Metaphor is a mainstay of good writing. This is true for authentic metaphor but it’s a dangerous game and very easy to fall into bad habits, mixing or mismatching cliche. Simile usage often stumbles into the same trap. There’s a simple rule of thumb here. “The sole aim of metaphors is to call up a visual image.” The main difference between metaphor and simile isn’t – as is commonly defined by dictionaries – that metaphor is symbolic while simile is literal. Better to think of the difference as metaphor is shared association and simile is freeform comparison.

On the surface a metaphor may seem – as it’s often misleadingly defined – to be a figure of speech referring to things that aren’t literally connected. But this definition mistakes form for substance. The point about a metaphor is it MAY associate things that appear unconnected but the connection exists more profoundly in associations shared by writer and reader. Straightforward example would be the use of Greek mythology as a rich source of metaphor.

“The athlete’s love of danger was to prove her Achilles heel.”

The reader’s understanding of this athlete’s love of danger be enriched by referring to her Achilles heel as a metaphor.

Another sidebar: the loss in the Anglophone world of a working knowledge of the richly textured mythology of the classical world is a loss of shared metaphor that degrades the possibilities for precision (and profundity) in all 21st century descriptive writing. Once the metaphor becomes so esoteric it’s known only to a few, any writing choosing to use it must pay the price in diversity of readership. Those who don’t know the metaphor can’t be reached with the precision it used to provide. Life and reality is complex and language is a tool for communicating it. Blunt the tool and communication suffers; which it has.

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