Monday, December 1, 2014

Move the Stars (and let the bears be)

I collect quotations. One I particularly like by Gustave Flaubert: human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars.

I love this quotation. It is lyrical and poignant. So, I added it to my collection a few years ago, not knowing who Gustave Flaubert was or the context, until I read Madame Bovary, and there it was. I was happy to find it in context, and it caused me to think about words.

Because I’m a logophile. And because something happened recently, in the world of words, that bothered me.

The Merriam-Webster English dictionary now lists the second definition of LITERALLY as: in effect :  VIRTUALLY

And civilization as we know it has LITERALLY come to an end.

Well not truly literally...but yes literally, because literally can now mean virtually. And my head is going to literally explode.

Ok, given the readership of my blog, you probably get it and probably feel much the same, and I should quit...but it just MAKES...ME...WANT...TO...SCREAM!


Ah words! More precisely language. I believe the English language is evolving and devolving. While the evolution is good and natural, I lament the devolution. An increasing body of knowledge, new discovery, and new technology make new words necessary. We have more words today than 100 years ago, or even a generation ago. However, while the sheer number of words is undoubtedly greater, I believe many people have a poorer command of the English language than our predecessors.

New words are necessary and validated by common accepted use, such as selfie and hashtag. I get it.

But literally meaning virtually is incorrect and should not be accepted no matter how commonly it is misused.

People know hard drive, bling bling, and plasma screen, but if you say to the average high school graduate I have very eclectic taste in music or the conversation was rather esoteric or some words are now considered archaic you may very well get a wrinkled nose, stupefied expression. In my opinion we are moving towards Orwellian Newspeak, where our many redundant words such as: big, large, huge, giant, enormous, etc. and their antonyms: small, tiny, little, puny, etc. are replaced with a single word, plus prefix and suffix. One root word covers the entire gamut: big, bigger, biggest, unbig, unbigger, and unbiggest.

The pragmatic within me thinks this is brilliant and efficient, but the poet finds it harsh and ugly. I don't believe efficiency in language ought to be our goal, but rather efficacy. I don't believe anyone is actually advocating Newspeak, but we have dumbed down the language. We default to the simplest word. Why bother with words like aroma, fragrance, odor, scent, when smell works in every instance. It works; just not as well. There are subtle differences and speech can be more evocative with a small word change. A young man may tell his date she smells nice, but he will probably get a better response if he says, that’s a beautiful fragrance you’re wearing. Isn’t it more descript to speak of a flower’s scent, a locker room’s odor, or dinner’s aroma, than merely their smell?

Consider an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence: Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Today this would probably read: Therefore we must change our system of government. King George has repeatedly and intentionally abused us. Here is the proof.

Maybe I was born in the wrong century. I read Thomas Jefferson’s argument or Jane Austen’s dialogue and I lament the devolution of English. Language should evolve. New words are necessary, but must we sacrifice the elegance of language in order for our brains to accommodate more words?

Language is not only beautiful; it is powerful. So, while the poet appreciates its beauty, those who change the world understand its power. Language is an indispensable tool. If a person is satisfied with an inferior tool, that is their prerogative, but I happen to think it is a mistake. Communication is essential; it isn't a pastime. It is the principle means by which knowledge is conveyed. If we settle for efficient communication, or the fewest, simplest words, we limit our ability to receive and convey knowledge. We ought to strive for excellence not adequacy. I do not mean verbosity or grandiloquence, but precise, accurate, complete discourse.

As I said, I’m a logophile; I love words. Without words, how would Walt Whitman have lamented his fallen Captain? Without words, how could Poe make my hair stand on end, or Prof Tolkien create a world I can escape to. How would the founding fathers have defied a King? How would Martin Luther King Jr. share his dream with a languishing nation? Without words, how could Helen Keller, who never heard a word spoken in her life, tell us: When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.

How can we hope to move the stars?


A bit of good news: The Oxford English Dictionary defines literally as: in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc. So we may be spared the apocalypse a bit longer.

So remember:
Oxford English Dictionay – Defenders of goodness and decency
Merriam-Webster – Commentary redacted in the interest of avoiding litigation

Final thoughts: Just expressing my passion for words. I don’t mean to preach, and if I did, I know I am preaching to the choir. My own vocabulary, spelling, structure, punctuation, diction, etc. is far from perfect. I simply aspire to excellence. Quotation: I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it. Edith Sitwell (1887 - 1964) Goodness, she said the same thing I did, but with so many fewer words, obviously an advocate of Newspeak.


  1. I enjoyed reading this and I didn't find it preachy at all. I think people's use of language reflects a cultural shift to make things easier and quicker. It's hard to speak precisely when you're more focused on being quick.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Zezee. I look forward to comparing notes in the future.


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