Monday, January 14, 2013

On Words

Today I decided to celebrate my freedom from homework by starting a new class.

It is something only a true word-nerd would do: before she is even formally graduated, begin watching a set of DVD lectures on the history of the English language.

The Great Courses ® is, in some ways, rather better than actual college coursework (and no, the company is not paying me to say this!) The advantages of in-home viewing, at your own pace and schedule, are self-evident, not to mention the hundreds of courses available, and the fact that they give you your money back if you decide halfway through that you don't like the teacher (something no college class, in my experience, has ever done!) In my case this set was a gift from my parents for my birthday several years ago, which, since I was in the middle of college, I neglected to commit to watching. Now there's nothing to keep me, and since this course doesn't have homework I decided there was no better way to launch my post-college career as a stay-at-home pilot's wife and writer.

I know I am not alone in my love for words. I'm not the only person who has lost a game of Speed Scrabble because she was paying more attention to making long, enjoyable words than to winning the game.You don't have to be an English major to like words; neither do you have to have read much Shakespeare (I am a Case In Point). But in case you have never stopped to consider the delight that words can give, join me in pondering the sheer, innate delectableness of words like... loquacious.

Say it! Let the syllables linger on your tongue before you let them loose on the listening air. Notice how your voice instinctively deepens on the first two letters, (it would be absurd to say them in a high or squeaky voice), how the "kway" seductively curls itself around the outward breath of emphasis (even more if you extend it a little) and how the word trails off in a half-whisper, half-hiss.

Or what about chortle? Can you say it five times fast without grinning?

Doesn't the sound of mesmerize carry with it that tantalizing vision of a thing desired, a misty vision of a word!

I also love words that look elegant on the page: words like melancholy and trousseau and mayonnaise.

I started a list of all the words I could use instead of "bad" or "good", and I was astonished by the shades of meaning that color the alternatives. Unnecessary is miles away from ludicrous in meaning, and yet how often do we use the dull, all-encompassing "bad" instead of either? It would be like painting all our rooms black, since black supposedly contains all shades of color. Think of the difference between something that is enchanting and something that is extraordinary, and then tell me if you can possibly bear to use "good"to describe them both.

Why, in modern communication, do we insist on abbreviation, on condensation, on making language as simple and dull as possible? When did we stop enjoying words? When did we cease to recognize the power and beauty of words? My friends and relations will tell you that I send text messages that are complete sentences, with proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar. This is not merely English major stuffiness. There is something within me that is drawn to the dignity of words, and to condense, abbreviate, and distort them purposefully to me would be like taking The Mona Lisa and drawing a mustache on it. (And yes, I know, people have digitally done that.)

So of course you can see why, for me, the history of the English language would be a fascinating topic, a grand epic where the characters are words instead of people, meeting and conflicting with each other, battling for pre-eminence. What words will win, to live on through the ages from parchment to pixels, and what words are doomed to die, fading from memory and writing? 

I suspect this is not the end of my soliloquy (another word that's fun to say!) on the subject, but, in the mean time, I invite you to consider words. I invite you to consider words as not simply a row of blank faces but as alive with expression and emotion and meaning. What is the power of words? And, to make it more personal, what is the power of your words– and what are you going to do with it?


  1. I love this. Are we *required* to follow text or Twitter rules and make everything as short and impersonal as possible? Well, I don't thing so. And I love learning outside of school better than I ever loved it inside. No grades! Just learning!