Friday, November 7, 2008

A Victory for Eloquence

It took months, weeks, days of grueling, grinding work to win the presidential election. But within two hours of doing so, President-Elect Barack Obama scored a major victory for the American language: he brought eloquence to the national stage once again.

In his acceptance speech, he made a graceful allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then he drew directly from the closing paragraph of Lincoln's first inaugural address when he stated, “We are not enemies, but friends.”

The World Changes, trumpeted the headline in an Italian newspaper, announcing the election results. For all the power that Barack Obama will soon have to change the world, it will be the power of his words that will move many of us—not only to action, but to think.

Your thoughts? Click the Comments button if you’d like to have words.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Not again! Say it isn’t so, Sarah

Palin, in Greek, means “again.” Listening to Sarah Palin relay her redneck story when she was in Ohio recently—“You know what I said when somebody said to me, ‘Sarah, you’re a redneck’? I said, ‘Thank you’”—one starts to hear it all over again.

Red versus blue.
Us versus them.
Me versus you.

Thanks to the implosion of Wall Street, Americans may be long divided between those who profited in the fall (cause) and those who’ve watched their savings, jobs, homes, retirement fall apart (effect). Isn’t that enough of a divide?

Do we really need to go back to that Bush League dichotomy of you’re-one-of-us-or-you’re-not?

Not again. Please—not ever again.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Who you calling maverick? The debate Obama and McCain won’t have (so we will)

Words mean something.” Sure, you’d expect to see a statement like that on a word-lover’s blog. Surprise—those three words belong to Barack Obama, as quoted in today’s New York Times.

But what exactly do words mean?

Audacity, meet maverick

When I was finding the right words for Smart Words, two that I included were “audacity” and “maverick.” This happened months before we knew who our presidential candidates would be. (Unlike blogs, books still take a bit of time a-borning.)

“Audacity” is boldness and adventurousness. “Maverick” is from Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher who refused to brand his cattle; his namesake word means one who is an independent thinker.

Barack Obama is the author of The Audacity of Hope. John McCain will tell you he’s always been a maverick.

But after the Democratic and Republican conventions, one wonders if either candidate should claim ownership of either word.

McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin was one where “audacity” fits easily into the sentence. It certainly was bold, and no doubt will prove to be adventurous. Whether it was wise is another matter.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, refused to let himself be branded as an impossibility and became the country’s first African-American presidential candidate. Some would call that the mark of a true maverick.

Words mean something.” But not always, and not only, what they set out to mean.

What do you think, fellow word-lover? I’d love to hear from you. Just click on “Post a Comment” on the next line…and let’s have words.

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.