Okay, I admit it. I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all. Words are wonderful. Words are magical. Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy. Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.
Let’s be honest. We love words!
(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )
So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”). Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.
First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing. When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:
“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”
Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter? Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely? Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone. An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity. However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.
Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us. We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories. This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.
The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters. We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.
Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally. Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs. Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain? And I’m not even sorry).
But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.
First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish. Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests. We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me). However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement. Our language is still alive! It is growing! Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.
Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text. A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand. Something solid. In our technological age, text has changed. We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it. Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another. It’s not just a thing anymore. It’s an action. I can text someone. Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time. Because text has changed.
The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers. We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution. Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process. Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language. We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it). We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense. Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.
So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words. What is your favorite word to say? What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact? What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary? Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps? Please, I beg of you!)
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Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom: