Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Smart-Words Manifesto

The trend is encouraging: there are Smart Cars, smart buildings, even smart cows (or at least, Smart Balance margarine and Simply Smart milk). We’re shown how to be smart about money, perhaps because more of us have less of it thanks to the price of that margarine and milk.

Isn’t it time we started being smart about our words?

In one sense, we already are. English is a finicky language, filled with rules and exceptions to them. And, just to keep us on our linguistic toes, it’s rarely met a language it didn’t like and want to borrow from.

Thus we have words from Sanskrit (juggernaut) and Algonquin (mugwump) and French (dishabille) and Spanish (aficionado) and Latin (caveat) and Greek (hubris) and German (Schadenfreude) and plenty more.

The number of words in the English language hovers at around a quarter of a million, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which Ammon Shea, a fellow word-lover, recently read in its entirety). Only the number of guys who’ve wished they were Tiger Woods surpasses this.

Certainly, English is one of the most…verbose of the world languages. The fact that most of us who speak the language can string together coherent sentences says much about our smarts.

Isn’t it time we showed the world our smarter selves? Why not use more of this vast wealth of words at our fingertips?

It doesn’t always have to be about the big, Bill Buckley words. It’s really about using the right words—the ones that send a little frisson of pleasure down the spine when you hear them or read them or write them. (Really, words can do that.)

As a nation, we’ve been Dummied down too long. The assumption seems to have been that because we don’t know something—how to say eleemosynary, for example—we can’t learn. Nonsense.

Americans have been smart enough to figure how to keep a democracy relatively intact for more than 200 years. (Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” and then used his mastery of the language to help protect it from ruin.) If we can do that, surely we can figure out how to put more words to work for us.

Once upon a time America had eloquent leaders—Kennedy, Lincoln, John Adams and just about everyone in his crowd. Perhaps we will again. Eloquence has a way of uplifting, of bringing out “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln said—even if it means bringing out, or clicking onto, the dictionary.

We Americans don’t need to be talked down to. We’re smarter than that. It’s about time we showed this better angel of our nature to the world, and to ourselves.

(About eleemosynary—it’s a long way of saying “depending on charity” and is pronounced ell-ee-uh-MAH-sin-ar-ee.)

And what do you think, oh smart one reading this—do you agree? I’d love to hear from you. Please post your Comment…and let’s have words.

2 comments:

pls said...

Agreed! Twain once observed that the difference bet the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Smart words thus are not a mere luxury, but an essential tool in this info-overloaded world.
-p

Steve said...

Bravo Mim!

When a writer uses a word that sends his or her readers to the dictionary, that's fine, so long as the word is worth the trip. If the word is merely an obscure synonym for a more common word, I'd might merely shrug. But if the word is uniquely appropriate for that usaged, I applaud and thank the writer for showing me yet another facet of our sparkling language. How many ways can sunlight sheen on a dragonfly wing?

I equally admire how a fine writer can use ordinary nouns and verbs in unusual ways to make images leap from the page. Consider Michael Cabon in Wonder Boys:

"Three miles off the interstate, at the point where the old state highway met the Youngstown Road, there was a diner called the Seneca, with a chrome-and-neon warbonnet for a sign."

Look forward to more posts--or whatever you'll call them.

Steve Leveen