Have you noticed that our language seems to be getting smaller? We are not only using smaller words, but we are also using fewer of them. Certainly, there is an argument to be made that smaller words are more inclusive. However, I wonder, by distilling our language down to an essential few words, are we also sacrificing clarity and richness?
English is a rich and wonderful language. One can argue that, because it is not shy about borrowing words, phrases, etc from anywhere so long as they fit the bill of expression; it is also quite egalitarian. (see our earlier post on our WEIRD AND WONDERFUL LANGUAGE) But English also carries with it a panoply of its own marvelously musical and mystical words. As a young man, I had the inestimable pleasure of reading Lawrence Durell’s Alexandria Quartet. It was an experience that has lasted a lifetime and enriched my language with such words as lambent and crepuscular. Durell’s prose is as rich with imagery and layered meaning as any poetry ever written.
Similarly, a young woman of our acquaintance sharpens her mind by reading Michael Chabon. She sits with a dictionary and a note pad in her lap so she can look up and jot down the wondrous vocabulary that he uses. Now, this isn’t all she reads, however she reads Chabon and Palahniuk not only for their marvelous stories but also for the enrichment that their language brings to her life. There are those who will say that such endeavors could be elitist or even snobbish. I disagree. Many of us out here, readers and writers alike, simply love language. We are forever seeking ways to enrich, enliven, and clarify our written and verbal communication. I like to think that we of that ilk fit this exchange I heard dramatized between Nero Wolfe and a witness. Witness: “You like do use big woids, doncha?” Wolfe: “No madam; I like to use words that say what I mean.” Certainly, there are those who seek to set themselves up as ‘better than’ others through their use of overly complex language. However, we frequently find that those people betray their true ignorance through malapropisms.
I believe that the well read women and men need to tailor their language to their audience. One would not necessarily address a class of fourth graders in the same language as ones’ colleagues. However, as writers, we do believe in pushing our readers just a bit. A new word is a new opportunity for growth. By failing to drive ourselves and others to the dictionary from time to time, we weaken the clarity of our own thoughts as well as our ability to express them. We don’t need to rise to the level of a Chabon, Durrell, or Palahniuk in our day to day speech, but we should strive to clarify our meaning. especially when we write. Sometimes that involves more complex language. Take for example the difference between ‘black’ and ‘ebony’. Black
fades to gray. Ebony is rich and enduring; all the way to the core. Ebony denotes a richness; a depth of color which is far more compelling than mere black. Thus I believe that it’s no mere happenstance that the magazine is named Ebony rather than Black. Whether you are a writer or a reader, we challenge you to think about this and act upon it. Add a bit of spice to your reading. Occasionally, add a bit of pizzazz to your speech. You’ll find that your world is brighter, clearer, and richer for it.