Mark Twain is rumored to have said that he had no respect for a man who could spell a word in just one way. Many college students wish that their English professors shared this view. Yes, it’s true that conventional spelling promotes effective communication—no one denies it—but at the same time there’s always a loss when capitulation to conformity extends too far. A good example is vocabulary usage, particularly in academic settings. Am I the only person in the University who’s heard the words “benchmarking” and “networking” a few times too often? Somehow I doubt it. In my own field of study, English literature, I’ve lived to see the day when “text” does most of the work formerly shouldered by “story,” “lyric,” “play,” “treatise,” “novel,” and a dozen other terms: a poor exchange by any standards. And while I know there are often good reasons for the dominance of certain speech habits and locutions, I regret any loss of linguistic diversity.
New words, of course, are entering English all the time—and every other language too. I love this fact. Five years ago I’d never uttered the words “blog,” “wiki,” “emoticon,” or “pixelated”; 10 years ago I didn’t know that “spam” could be a verb or that “chill” could mean “relax”; and when I graduated from college, the now-indispensable “phallocrat” was entirely unavailable. So I have no complaint with novelty, in and of itself. What I lament, rather, is the neglect of thousands of perfectly good words—especially when such neglect is combined with the pathological overuse of a few. And this, along with inattention to the reverberations of words—their sounds, their connotations, their groundings in metaphor—is what disheartens me about the routine language habits of academe.
Part of the problem lies with our linguistic mavens. The Strunk-and-White bias against Latinate diction, for example, has never made much sense to me. “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin,” they tell us, “so use Anglo-Saxon words.” “Gut,” after all, is a “lustier” noun than “intestine.” Lustier? Maybe—but I’d still like the option to use both. Besides, some of my favorite words come from Latin. Take “defenestrate”: to throw a person or thing out a window. I’m not even sure the Anglo-Saxons had windows. True, I don’t use this verb all that often in my lectures and essays, but I’m deeply reassured by the fact that it’s there when I need it. Or, alternatively, take “flaccid.” Not typically championed by men, this Latinate adjective nonetheless has striking potential for metaphorical deployment, as when an editor tells an aspiring novelist that “it would be difficult to underestimate the potency of your flaccid prose.”
But blaming the experts only goes so far. The academic rank and file has to take the majority of the responsibility. And much of this can be attributed to sloth: to a simple failure to listen, think, remember, and imagine. According to one of my friends—a rogue librarian with a penchant for language trivia—English currently contains about 54,000 word families, each group comprising words with a common root, like “hysteria,” “hysterical,” “hysterectomize,” and so on. Yet the active vocabularies of well-educated native speakers are often absurdly small—shrunken and atrophied, like underused quadriceps. Worse still, the words that remain are often chosen with a defeatist calibration to the prevailing verbal standards of the nearest discursive community, so that ugly words like “normalcy,” “revamp,” and “fungible” appear with perverse frequency, as do terms such as “reality check,” “action plan,” “focus group,” “norming session,” and “faculty buy-in.”
For what it’s worth, here’s my own personal candidate for the most hideous word currently in wide academic usage: “feedback.” Maybe it’s just me, but the metaphor here isn’t quite dead yet; it’s still steaming and reeking and pullulating. “How would you like your feedback, sir? In a zip-loc bag? Or shall I just pour it on your desk?” No doubt someone will remind me that “feedback” has a distinguished prior history; long before it was appropriated by academe (and indeed by American society at large), it spent a useful career in radio technology. Too bad: I still hate it. Along with “spendy,” “copacetic,” “doable,” “brainstorm,” “push the envelope,” and “hunky-dory,” it’s one of those verbal abominations whose complete absence from the remainder of my life will allow me to lapse into senescence somewhat more gracefully.
Okay, I’m a word curmudgeon; I confess. I have strong opinions about language—some of them totally irrational. But by the same token I don’t mind at all when my students coin new terms, even if they do so inadvertently. Last year, for instance, one young woman noted in her essay on The Taming of the Shrew that she despised Bianca’s “insipitude.” Shakespeare would have been delighted. Indeed, we should keep Shakespeare in mind when we think about diction: he was a language sponge, soaking up every word that met his eyes or ears, and his criterion for usage was local efficacy, not cultural pedigree. Being a playwright, he might even have found a use for “feedback”; it’s the kind of word that Rosencrantz would fancy, not to mention Octavius Caesar. And one can only daydream about the utterances Shakespeare might have conceived if he’d had access to great post-Elizabethan words like “filibuster,” “moxie,” “barbecue,” “amok,” “payola,” “quark,” “scalawag,” “bazaar,” “akimbo,” “whinge,” “behemoth,” “taboo,” “jalopy,” “yonic,” “palooka,” “vigorish,” “junta,” “bamboozle,” or “schmuck.”
Admittedly, most of us cherish a few words that we seldom find occasion to use. I myself have never said “skiapod” to another human being, even though I desperately wish to do so. But we can’t leave “carapace” solely to the crustacean experts, “deliquesce” to the art historians, or “chthonic” to H.P. Lovecraft. Still less can we wilfully ignore the figurative groundings of many common words. Consider the metaphor in “understand”: to assume an upright position beneath something, to support, to bear. Think of Atlas with the earth on his shoulders. Or, according to a different etymology, “under” may have meant “amidst” to the speakers of Old English. Either way, once you acknowledge the presence of the embedded metaphor, you can never again claim that you “understand” quantum mechanics or baroque counterpoint with the same blithe confidence that you may once have felt; you’re chastened by the image, by the thought of what it means to stand under or in the midst of something else—a body of historical knowledge, a set of quadratic equations, a book of poems. And while announcing that “understand” is one’s favorite word is a bit like saying that whole wheat bread is one’s favorite food, still, for me, it’s the truth.
Few people can keep their minds and ears open with constant imaginative attention to the words that come and go in their daily lives. A few more, perhaps, can do so when they sit down to write. But when we move from individual words to complex phrases and sustained paragraphs, we’re often reduced to wonder at the seemingly effortless brilliance of the true writers, those with enduring talent. Take a sentence by James Joyce—just about any sentence in Ulysses. Read it aloud: you’ll hear that it has more verbal life than entire shelves of doctoral dissertations. Or try to parse a Shakespearean construction like Prospero’s reference to “the dark backward and abysm of time.” It defies exegesis; it resists being pinned down and anatomized in any grammatical taxonomy. Yet it means and signifies beyond our ability to explain.
So, yes, I’m disappointed by the poverty of language use in the academy, though I recognize that scarcely anyone looks good when compared to the likes of Emily Dickinson or George Eliot. How many people, after all, could write the sublime closing paragraph of Middlemarch, let alone the whole book? Still, we could do better than we do, and we owe it to our students—and ourselves—to make the effort. As someone who has resorted
to pretentious literary jargon more often than I care to remember, I’ll be the first to count myself among the reprobates. But at least I can promise that I’ll never again use “hegemony,” “interpellation,” and “commodity fetishism” all within the same prepositional phrase.
Because language is so vast, each of us is inevitably subjected to one degree or another of linguistic ignorance. I stand in awe of a colleague who speaks four languages fluently, yet he sometimes tells me how inadequate his skills seem to him when he listens to multilingual conversations in the café-bars of Europe. Personally, I’m saddened by the thought of all the words I’ll never know: evocative and exquisite words, words built from startling metaphors, words that designate realities I haven’t yet learned to perceive. And this is to say nothing of the charm of idioms I’ll never hear, the breathtaking concision of some throwaway phrase in Arabic or Swahili or Quechua. But for those of us who think and work in English, the choice still exists to infuse our speech and writing with a bit more energy, resisting the tired, the clichéed, and the mindlessly fashionable. We can experiment; we can reject colonization by the prosaic empires of business and marketing; we can reach, resist, stretch, twist, create. In what Shakespeare calls “the quick forge and working-house of thought”—the human imagination—there’s endless potential for verbal innovation and lexical discipline. And the university is as good a place as any to carry out such work.
Thanks in advance for your feedback.
Will Hamlin, an English professor at WSU, teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. His most recent book, Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare’s England, was published last year in London.