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The Progressive Review

Words & meaning

Sam Smith

DC Gazette 1981

I learned the other day that I had survived more than two decades as a writer without ever fully understanding what a predicate was: My ten-year-old explained it to me. I was glad he understood it, but I wondered whether he still would when he was forty-one and how many times he would get to use the information between now and then. I am wondering again for now, a few days later, I have forgotten his explanation.

I don't fault his teachers for instructing him on such matters, because it comes as part of a package that also includes the foundation of good writing, which is to write, write, and write again. They are always writing something at that school: poems, interviews, ads, news articles, book reports, lists. If they happen to pick up a bit of arcane knowledge about the structure of language along the way, there is no harm. It's like the baseball fan who remembers who played first base with the Red Sox in 1946.

I know there are people who feel the decline of the American language began when we could no longer remember what a predicate was. Esquire gives space regularly to a column predicated on predicates and such - a pleasantly stuffy series by John Simon who weighs his words with all the care of a deli owner measuring pastrami for a sandwich. People like Simon and Edwin Newman are fun to have around; it's nice to know that there is still a chance to make a living maintaining standards, but the truth is that they are not going to save the language or reverse our semantic senility. They are museum curators inviting us into quaint restored rooms of our linguistic heritage, but, like it or not, we are never going to live that way again.

I don't deny there's a problem. There are people who right now are simplifying textbooks to compensate for the growing sub-literacy of college students. This town is awash in words that people have written, many of them unnecessary or indecipherable. Congress recently considered legislation affecting what it called "unitary hograising structures" when it could have said "pigpens." A research firm in North Carolina, asked to study how schools could combat illiteracy, told the state board of education, "The conceptual framework for this evaluation posits a set of determinants of implementation which explains variations in the level of implementation of the comprehensive project." DC's school superintendent speaks fervently of the need for "self -actualization" and thinks he's saying something.

I would submit, however, that the solution does not lie in drawing up the wagons around purity. Much as John Simon would prefer that we not use "hopefully" the way we do, it is the sort of argument that quickly convinces modern mumblers that preservers of language are elitist fools, not worth the bother .

Rather, I think, we should accept the fact that language is culture and art and that there is no reason for it to be more static than any other aspect of culture and art. The question is not whether we say it the same way as our grandparents, but whether we understand each other and whether we say things that offer enlightenment, entertainment, or emotion. The problem is not that language is changing but that the changes reflect other alterations in our society that are less than desirable. The problem is not that our grandparents would not understand us but that we don't understand each other.

Bureaucratese is the preeminent example. It is constantly berated, yet it survives because we fail to recognize that we're dealing with politics and not just words. Bureacratese is bad not only because it sounds bad, but because it accurately articulates what many bureaucrats are about, namely obfuscation, indecision, and carefully padded prevarication. Bureaucrats don't talk like that because they were poorly taught; their language honestly reflects their mission. That's what we I should be fighting. Better language will follow a better bureaucracy.

Next to bureaucrats (and I lump Ph.Ds, sociologists, consultants, and people writing grant proposals as their fellow-travelers), the worst damage is done by the media. The media comes second only because its evil is occasionally mitigated by contributions to idiomatic expression. In an era when we all sorely need something in common, we should not begrudge being able to share at least "We do it all for you." No bureaucrat ever added anything useful to the language, but advertising not only regularly replenishes our supply of clichés, it provides an ever-changing source of humor.

The press used to contribute to language as well, but you hardly see a good Time Magazine neologism any more and typically the new words the press does bring us are ones devoured unquestioningly from bureaucrats trying to deceive it. In recent weeks, for example, the press has, without a whimper, accepted the notion that "mandatory conservation " is a perfectly acceptable synonym for "rationing." There was a day, sadly far gone, when reporters would have ridiculed any bureaucrat who tried to get away with that. Perhaps reporters no longer notice because they, too, are joining the bureaucracy.

The press and advertising are part of what is known as the "communications" industry. And here lies the rub. One writer has observed that communications does not necessarily have anything to do with words at all. After all, animals communicate. One of things that separates us from them is our supposed ability with language.

But the media is willing to settle for communications. How fitting. Because the basic task is not to get us to think, which requires language, but to get us to feel. Feel like having a Michelob. Feel like we've understood the world from the evening news. Feel like using the right shampoo will bring us happiness. Feel like we're saying something when we're actually engaged in a sensory transmission as primitive as a robin's chirp.

The current sensory obsession of America is phenomenal. Layouts become more important than the articles they announce. Packages become more important than the contents. Backgrounds become foregrounds, feelings become ideologies, and what you sense overwhelms what you see and learn. I think at times that our cat should be allowed to vote. She arches her back when a dog wanders into the yard; she purrs and paddles her paws when she is content; she feels and she communicates and don't say nothing. She is the modern American hero. Warren Beatty with fur.

Except for one thing. For all our sensory glut - mood drugs, mood music, mood therapy, mood theology , mood government - we still have this curious ability to talk and write. So while some feelies mercifully boogie themselves away wordlessly in the disco dens, others think it unfeeling not to use this ability on others. Thus they write and talk. And about what? Their feelings, of course.

The feelies are all around us. They go to psychiatrists or group therapy to share their feelings and then rush out to tell others what they told their psychiatrist or therapy group. They come up to you at a party and move instantaneously from their name to a detailed report on their emotional EKG. They tell you that you are having trouble expressing yourself or that you're not being honest with them, though you may only be waiting for a break in their monologue. They write books about how love, success, and salvation all depend upon communications yet they rarely provide any information or idea worth communicating.

It makes me think I should get out of this writing business. If expressing oneself in words is really that easy, why am I revising this page for the third time?

Why do I have to say, "I don't know" when everyone else seems to? Maybe words are just harder for a writer. Someone else can say, "I'm really getting into soup these days" and expect it to be accepted as a statement of culinary fulfillment of the highest order. I can't help but see them doing the backstroke through a bowl of Campbell's Cream of Tomato. If I had been given a recipe or anecdote, the assurance of involvement would have been more convincing, even unnecessary, but the style in some quarters to day is for language to be used for confession and profession as though that sufficed without further elaboration.

Words can mean many things, and once off the lip or on the page they gain a life of their own, with meanings that may not coincide with the author's intent. So you try to be careful, to think about what you say or write, what it means to you and what it might mean to someone else and then you end up like Jack London who said, "It is the hardest thing in the world to put feeling, and deep feelings, into words. From the standpoint of expression, it is easier to write a 'Das Kapital' in four volumes than a simple lyric of as many stanzas."

I find I have a bad reputation. In conversation I fumble around a lot, starting sentences and then dropping them in the middle, like I would on a typewriter, mentally crossing them out with silence. It amuses and frustrates my friends. I think I know what the trouble is. I have discovered that when I am speaking formally, to a group or on the air, I am much more fluent than in personal conversation. The reason is simply that I don't generally say anything on these occasions that I haven't tested in the research & development section of my mind. I mainly repeat myself. In other words, I don't really think.

But in an informal situation, I try to think and talk at the same time and my tongue sputters, my mind keeps back-spacing and well-intentioned sentences turn truant. This is especially true when I try to say how I feel about something.

According to the contemporary mythology this means I am either repressing my feelings or, worse, don't have any. This presumption confounds me. If pushed or tired, I'll just go along and spit out an appropriate cliché. This seems to satisfy others, but not me, for my inarticulateness stems from a difficulty in translating non-verbal sensations into the limited vocabulary of our language. It is not that the feelings are not there or that I am trying to suppress them; it is just that I don't want to misrepresent them. This is why, I think, we need music and art and hugs and caresses. For these I am glad that words do fail us. I don't need a word for everything.

I probably take it too far. It's partly a liability of my trade and partly the result of a Quaker education. Quakers are one of the few groups that still respect silence. I've also spent many months in Maine where they tell the story of the tourist, befuddled by the quietude of the town, who asks, "Is there a law against speaking here?" "No," was the reply, "we just don't believe in talking unless it improves upon silence." Such a standard is cultural treason these days. We are expected to communicate whether we have anything to say or know how to say it, leaving our language like a field that has been reaped too often without being sown or fertilized. It is not enough to witness a tragedy and say simply, "Oh, my god!" We are expected talk it out, explore our feelings with others, express our grief verbally - and the more wordily the better .

There was a time when one might take a long walk in silence alone or with a friend, meditate, pray, or just cry. But that will no longer suffice. We might .try to comfort a person in some tangible way, perhaps only by one's presence or touch. But today these seem lesser ways of expressing feeling; now we judge feelings by their linguistic form.

I looked up "silence" in several collections of quotations. I found some apt phrases, but then I noticed something more interesting. My Bartlett's, first published in 1882, had more than two-thirds of a page of its tiny type index devoted to silence and its variations. H.L. Mencken's "New Dictionary of Quotations," published in 1942 and a much more selective volume, still had two pages of quotations dealing with silence. As with Bartlett's, silence generally met with approbation. Then I came to "Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times," published in 1977. There was no category for silence. Silence is clearly not an idea for our times. It has been replaced, in both a technological and cultural sense, by communications.

I don't deny the worth of talk nor do I doubt that many say less than they should, but I remain skeptical of the general assumption that if we talk long enough, truth and joy will flow like water, and of the tendency to blame the problems of world and the people in it on "a failure in communications." We are, after all, something more than bipedal citizen band radios. To so emphasize verbal expression denigrates the true variety of our senses, feelings, and opportunities for expressing them. An arm around the shoulder may be as true a profession of friendship as some hackneyed phrase. The spinning of a blues lines on the keyboard may relieve pain as much as the weaving of words.

Yet we persist in the faith that more and better communications will save us. The evidence seems weak. I live in the communicating capital of the world, where talking and writing are not only the major profession but a major recreation and we need 25 times as many psychiatrists per 100,000 residents as in inexpressive South Dakota. The availability of information about alternate routes to self-expression has soared in recent years, but so has the divorce rate. The social restraints on saying what one thinks have declined, but so have familial and community ties and public safety. Is social intercourse better than fifty or a hundred years ago? Personal relationships? Our understanding of each other?

We babble on in the hope that by saying enough we will say something right. It is actually more than a faith; it is an addiction. Words have become a drug, not to cure by occasional use, but to sustain by constant injection. Whether one is a teenager mesmerized by the tube or a senator mainlining testimony at a hearing, we increasingly need a verbal fix to get by. It is not by accident that some radio stations have switched from music to an "all-talk" format; words have become the atonal Muzak of our times.

So we not only say it badly but we say too much, and with language being so abused by the bureaucracy, the communicators, the hyper-feelers, and other word junkies, I can hardly take the criticisms of a John Simon seriously. He is the passenger on the Titanic asking for another ice cube in his Scotch. The ship is sinking and he wants us not to split infinitives? Hopefully, there's a better way than merely getting people to use hopefully correctly.

The right course is not to restore to language its antiquated rules but its reason. Many of the old rules are inherently unreasonable and make the logic of English worse. If they are forgotten so much the better. On the other hand, there are rules that should be remembered and reinforced. Among them are these:

Language should have a purpose. It should edify, argue, demonstrate, delight or sadden. Meaning should reign over grammar.

Just because we are able to speak and write doesn't mean we have to, As someone once said, what this country needs is more free speech worth listening to. Accumulating verbiage without regard to its content is more likely to lead to indigestion than understanding.

Language is a creative tool, not a piece of office equipment. Too much language today sounds mechanically assembled. In the case of word-processing this has become literally true. Phrases and paragraphs are stored to be retrieved and recycled constantly. One no longer needs to create, but only rearrange. If it begins to sound the same, it's because it is.

It is all right to change the language, but do it for the better. I try to avoid such inflammatory language as "chairman" but I similarly try to avoid, at all costs, its approved alternative, "chairperson." I find that an ugly, inhuman word. I don't mind being one of the people, but "we the persons?" No way. I think people who call me a person are dehumanizing me as much as if I called them a broad. I can't really explain this except that when someone says "person" I don't see any faces, but with "people" I do. "People" are friendly, but "person" is a cold, analytical word that calls up visions of those silhouette characters on population charts and I suspect whoever came up with it in its modern context of being like that. So what I do is duck the issue: "Mary Jones, who chairs the committee, said. . ." or "Mary Jones, chair of the committee." I was relieved to find that Bella Abzug, when recently relieved of her chair, called herself "a chair" which is, after all, a perfectly good word that has been around for years albeit without much currency. There are often words in our linguistic attic that we can dust off and use in a new context when some present phrase becomes clichéd or objectionable and many times it is far preferable to do so then to attempt to coin a new one.

Language should be enjoyable. Children, untrained in the somber ways of their elders, recognize this instinctively. They love riddles, puns, jingles and nonsense rhymes. They also love slang. For example, this year at our neighborhood school things are either "decent" or "gross" (there is no middle ground, apparently) and the foibles of a classmate risk identification as a "spas," a somewhat infelicitous derivation from "spastic." It will be different next year, no doubt, as indicated by a parent who had asked the definition of "decent" being told, "It's slang for cool.' To have slang for slang is a sign of vibrant verbal culture. Adults, of course, have slang, too, but it lacks status unless discreet and colorless as in the overuse of the word "really." If you attended college you are not supposed to descend into slang, although it is permissible, and even at times demanded, that one use a particular form known as jargon. Speaking of the "learning process" and calling someone a "muther" are not as different linguistically as they are indicative of a chasm in social class. Ironically, educated jargon thrives on its meaninglessness; uneducated slang often spreads because of its apt descriptive quality.

Recognizing that we all use words that someone invented should encourage us to try a little invention on our own. While jargon has given us plenty of words we don't need, there are still many things for which we could use a word, but don't have it. Here are just a few possible entries I've created for a really modern dictionary:

A worthbanger could be someone who beats you out of a job or a promotion. Delapse could be the sleep that occurs after you turn off the alarm clock. Cibility is asking someone to have lunch with you sometime when you don't really mean it. Two marathoners at a party engage in joggon. A floid is the absence of anything good to watch on TV as in "There's a floid, let's go to the movies." A snefflehugger is an unreadable photocopy. A bureaucrat who tells you something can't be done because it's never been done before is being precautious.

A day with high pollution levels is fenquid. A lackout is the time spent waiting for the plumber to come. And so forth. I'm still searching for a good word to give to one's ex-wife's mother's ex-husband. If we are going to change the language let us do so to suit our own, rather than institutional needs, and in a spirit of imagination and playfulness, rather than permitting the changes to become unnecessary additions to the tedium of our lives.

We should write for the ear and not the eye. We live in an auditory rather than a literary age and I'm not sure that is entirely a bad thing. Given the cultural dominance of television and radio, we can not in any case do much about it. Further, the formal style, once the mark of a literate writer, has been co-opted by government, academics, corporations, and law firms. It is now mostly bad writing and even if you do it well it puts you in bad company. Besides, if you wish to break through the verbal barriers of these aforementioned powerful institutions, matching style will never work. You break the barrier by speaking and writing informally and colloquially, thereby reminding the recipients of your words that they are humans as well as professionals. They may cave when faced with this revelation.

There is nothing wrong with simple and colloquial speech. The ear is a good judge of language. It doesn't like ugly sounds; it shuns needless complexity; it invites directness. We should, I think, be forced to listen to everything we write.

Finally, we should remember that language was created so people could talk to each other. Much language today is obviously not directed to anyone, but to institutions and machines. Much is used like a night light, to keep us from being afraid of the silence.

Words have better purposes. The major evil of institutionalized and automated language is that it is not human. There is no reason - no matter how complex our thought or exalted the context - to speak and write other than as one human to other humans. This means speaking and writing directly, logically and with spirit.

Such rules seem far more important than how we use "hopefully" and where we place our prepositions. With their application, our language might even flourish again. At least it would survive.