Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Big Words Manifesto

Now, class, sit up and pay attention. I am going to tell you about the great Linguist versus Logophile war about which my fiancé Ian Brown recently wrote so eloquently. I have a unique perspective in this contretemps because, trained as a linguist but a logophile at heart, I can be a little of both. I am not wishy-washy about this; I don't run from one camp to the other on a whim. I proudly straddle.

Linguists believe that living language is all about flux and change and this should be observed and respected and never interfered with. I agree with this, primarily because it's moot. No one has any control over the evolution of a language. No one ever has. If you try too hard, the living language dies. (see: Latin.) To the diehards who bemoan natural linguistic change as "the bastardization of the language", I say, "Hrotha besagt as maines infalgar." If English had never changed, you'd understand that.

Because of the vocabulary young people are exposed to on TV, on Instant Messaging, in emails, and especially given the huge proportion of ESL students in many Canadian city schools, many linguists believe that trying to teach a standardized vocabulary is not just ineffective, but undemocratic and limiting. The contemporary anti-vocabulary linguist values a word only in terms of its usefulness to a target audience.

Conrad Black's lawyer is on record as saying one of the reasons he does not want to put his client on the stand is that he uses too many Big Words and thus would alienate the jury. How sad is that?

Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. He believes, for example, that teachers have a closer relationship with their students if they "talk on the same level". He believes that when using Big Words, if you don't explain what they mean, you're wasting everyone's time. You're also wasting it if you stop and explain the words, so just don't. I can't begin to tell you how strongly I disagree with this, and that's where the logophile part of me comes in.

Logophiles are the word nerds. They are the purists who love words for their own sake, however useless. Logophiles read dictionaries for pleasure. They wait for the ecstatic moment when a particular obscure word is perfectly apt in the conversation (even if no one else knows what the hell they're talking about). When they use their huge vocabularies, they are not showing off but genuinely excited.

I have also entered into unrequited, polygamous betrothal with one Thomas Delworth, senior ambassador in the Canadian Foreign Service. Verbal precision matters to diplomats, even when they have to be intentionally imprecise. When asked how many dictionaries he owns, Delworth replied, "You mean just the ones in English?" He means this in all sincerity and is not trying to be pretentious. He is a genuine logophile.

Some examples of how I am a logophile (as if you needed any) are that I did indeed spend many hours in grade 7 reading my classroom dictionary. Also, I like to enjoy as many wonderful words in other languages as possible. Rejoice with me, for example, in the Scots Gaelic word sgriob, which means "the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey". Aren't you just dying for an occasion to use that word? "Ah, thank you, barkeep. This sgriob has been driving me crazy."

However, I fall short of true logophilism in that I am not a fan of the truly obscure word. I hate Scrabble as played at competition level, where at least half the words on the board are ones that no one other than competitive Scrabble players would know or have any earthly reason to know. Who gets to decide, though, where the line is between a big enough vocabulary so that you will always have the mot juste on all occasions, a vocabulary big enough to be able to enjoy good literature without having to resort to a dictionary, and words that are "useless"?

The editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary says they let a new word marinate for five years before it gets the nod to be included in the next edition. She says decisions on inclusion are at least partially based how likely a person is to ever run across the word. Many lexicographers feel there are "too many damn words" in the language and it needs to be beaten into manageability. Although it hurts my heart to do so, I do agree with this to a certain extent. The Oxford English Dictionary contains well over half a million words, many of which will not be used or encountered by a single person on this planet in their lifetime.

The younger generation is extremely fond of the word "fuck". They use it as all parts of speech. It's possible that future editions of dictionaries edited by this generation will have many pages dedicated to variations of meaning in the word "fuck" and will be able to delete all sorts of other words it has replaced. Is this a good thing? Linguists would say it is neither good nor bad but no one should attempt to stop this from happening. Logophiles will clutch their antique dictionaries and tell the philistines to coitus off.

So here's what I think:

The more words you have, the more ideas you have.

Why bother to go fancy when plain would suffice? Because you can. If you don't understand some of the words I use, that's your problem.

"Because this is the solid thing about words, long or short: They wait for anyone who wants them, and cost nothing." Reporter Ian said that, but I'll give the last word to diplomat Tommy:

"I don't think there is any goal in having a vocabulary. I think it is its own reward. I can't give you a cost-effectiveness breakdown. You simply have a somewhat larger grasp of this vast empire you might command."


Kate said...

Did you really use the word 'fuck' here? And 'coitus' too? What would Solomon think of this?? And to think that this language is coming from that little wallflower in the pure white grade seven graduation dress? I'm shocked!

solomon said...

On my list ugliest english words, 'fuck' ranks slightly above 'vomit' but well below Phlegm, Bilious, and Puke (the law firm partners.)