This is a cross-post from the author’s own blog, reproduced with kind permission.
There’s always some trepidation that comes with writing an essay on language. There is an immediate expectation on the part of the reader for their correspondent to be, if not highfalutin then at least competent. My aim is not to produce a grammatical masterpiece, although I attempt, of course to uphold standards. My purpose runs deeper than that, to consider the debasement of the intrinsic value of words. Namely, their meaning.
I’m not the first to point out our descent in to meaninglessness. Our adoption of gibberish and jargon into the lexicon has been a constant source of antagonism since the Norman Conquest. It was brought to its near apogee in the era of George Orwell and the great man, in his — and here I daresay he would throttle me — immortal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, duly eviscerates it. Note this extract from Professor Lancelot Hogben:
Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collactions of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.
Orwell’s criticism “quite apart from avoidable ugliness” was that sentences and paragraphs so constructed fall afoul of the greatest crime of language, that of a “staleness of imagery”. This leads — so he believed and I concur — to a “lack of precision” where “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not”.
This literary trap no doubt still captures many amongst our lettered classes, but our current problem is far more severe. We have the destroyed the meaning of words altogether. Take awesome, adj; causing feelings of great admiration, respect, or fear. And my own note for emphasis; Awe-some, to feel in awe. Awe was reserved for moments of transcendence, of divine inspiration, a word denoting our connection with the numinous infinity of our being. Now you can walk down any street of the cultural metropolis of London and have awesome being used to describe such trivialities as a new pair of Nike high tops, or Rhianna’s latest chart hit.
It is true that words naturally change meaning over time, ‘optimism’ has cheerfully made its way from Voltaire’s original and ‘need’ these days more often denotes want. People have always abused, evolved, and divined new meaning from words and this isn’t a call for the strictures of an Academie Anglais. Not only do I think it would be a futile endeavour, I can’t help but think our language would be poorer for it, after all Moliere, for all his eclat is not Shakespeare. It is however a call to reverse our trend of linguistic nihilism. The butchers bill is much longer than awesome. Outraged, appalled, shocked, disgusted, all and more have lost their ability to apply real meaning in their use. This is a tragedy. A tragedy that prevents us from plumbing the full depths of the human condition. Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes language as a window into human nature. As that window becomes narrower our rich, inner world becomes that much poorer. The 21st century with its trigger warnings and safe spaces is eating at our ability to feel alive in all its beauty. So much so that when we feel afraid — as is natural in a species still to lose its fear of the night — we can find solace in the words that allow us to express our condition to our fellow travellers. In so doing we can attain what little comfort and grace is due to us in the time we have on this strange journey of life.
No wonder the extent of our vocabulary is linked to everything from educational attainment and social standing, through to cognitive development and your chances of suffering from depression. Our ability to explain our inner world and to open the window that allows us to express this onto the world of things is ultimately limited by our ability to effectively communicate that world in words. Is it any surprise that we have generations failing to achieve any sort of attainment in any field of value. Generations hooked on vacuous ‘reality’ television and alarmingly adulterated narcotics. No wonder we see people falling under the thrall of false prophets, Donald Trump is just the logical outcome of this destruction of any ability to explain. An absurdity wholly appropriate to absurd times. In a world where at the click of a button people can meet anyone else in the world but lack the words to say anything meaningful to them. A world where a post on a virtual wall is a substitute for in person greetings and texting has replaced the art of the heartfelt letter between lovers. Contrast Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Christmas love letter to Nancy where he describes the women in his life and ends “fortunately all these women are you — fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you… How do I love thee — let me count the ways? For there is no way to count. For I love the whole gang of you” reduced in modern vernacular to “u r fit”, or else equally banal.
The apoplexy of the Bernie people to Trumps victory is the other side of the same coin. Call everyone a racist and you remove the meaning of the word. No longer is it the stupidity of Jim Crow or the bravery of Dr King, let alone the insanity of Mengler and the horrors of Auschwitz. Treblinka. Belzec. Sobibor. Chelmno. Majdanek. I feel impelled to list them all. To impregnate some meaning into what they represent. When we destroy them, words become useless at denoting anything in reality. Only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust. What does it do when two-thirds either don’t believe it or think it’s exaggerated? If genocide has lost all meaning what does that brood for future generations?
In Jean Hatzfeld’s painfully documented narrative driven from the side of the genocidaires in Rwanda, the killers are acutely aware of the power of words refusing to even mention genocide when spoken to in the French informal personal ’tu’ and only opening up in the broader more formal ‘vous’ even then preferring instead to refer to it as ‘the cuttings’ in the full knowledge of the shame of what genocide means in relation to their crimes. We risk much in the debasement of the language, as much in our shame as in our triumphs. It is through, and only through language, that we can comprehend. And in comprehending come to terms with, what Rilke so beautifully illumed as “that unique, not repeatable being which at every turn of our life we are”.