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Used as a means of communication, verbal or written.

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Language is a Beautiful Thing

  • Apr 23, 2010
During High School and early college I spent quite a bit of time everyday to sit down and write freely.  Sometimes I'd get stories.  Sometimes I'd get novellas and sometimes I'd get novels.  It all depended on whether or not what I was free-writing was something I liked.  I never know how long it'll be.  And I'm certainly not going to churn out something literary.  But when I write (as I still have a tendency to do) it is never about writing so-called "literature" and it is never about being good at what it is I'm doing.  Rather it's about making sure I can free write and tell a story.  Any story.  

Words are the building blocks of any story.  It's what makes the story come together.  It's also what tells the story.  People can be as elegant as they like with words, but they can also be, well, overbearing assholes with them.  So I just want to take a moment to write about language and words.  When I was in high school my English teacher frowned upon my writing.  Not because it wasn't good (I was a high school student; no one really expects "good" from a high school student... they only expect "not bad") but because she was upset at some of my word choices.  "You don't need complex, big words to express simple things."

"But that makes it more colorful," I replied.

"And it makes your writing frustrating to read," she told me.  It wasn't until a year or two after I graduated that I actually understood what that teacher meant when I picked up a book that seemed to be trying too hard to be colorful in its language.  She was right, it was frustrating to read.  I can't remember the name of the book.  I can remember, however, that so many sentences were packed full of words that were more complex than they actually had to be.  When I pick up fiction, it is hardly to read for the sake of intellectual stimulation.  Heaven's no.  Even when the book has something to say.  I read because it's what I like to do.  I write because it's a hobby that I like to partake in (the idea of getting any of those writings published amuses and frightens me).  The older I get and the more I read, however, I'm convinced that the use of big and/or complex words is a waste of a readers time.  Or, worse yet, a means of the author trying to show just how "smart" he or she really is.  And for some odd reason we use the word choice of a person to judge his or her intellectual level.  That seems quite... stupid to me.  I've read books with words I didn't even know the meaning to.  And I've written stories where I substituted simple words with more complex and bigger words so that my friends reading would think I was a smart person.  

Again, though, words used in that manner show insecurity.  They don't show intellectual prowse or show people how smart you are.  In fact, in certain instances you come off as quite the overbearing asshole who somehow thinks he's smarter than everyone else.  In short, the simple words are probably the most golden.  I mentioned this in my write up on writing, but there's no harm in repeating it here since it actually goes along with the topic at hand.  You may think insalubrious or deleterious or raconteur are all million dollar words that make you sound incredibly smart.  But what the hell is wrong with saying words that everyone can understand the meaning to?  Why say, "John is insalubrious," when simply saying "John is sick," works just the same?  In fact, saying "John is sick," is probably best.  People understand it better and no one scratches their head saying, "What the hell does that mean?"  If you're a doctor and you say, "You're insalubrious there, buddy," you just might make your patient think he's got some crazy disease.  For deleterious it's the same basic thing.  Why say, "Smoking is deleterious to your health," when you'll get the same statement from, "Smoking is harmful to your health?"  Raconteur may be the worst one here.  You might say, "Homer was a good raconteur," when in reality what you're saying is, "Homer was a good storyteller."  These are three examples of words where simple words are probably better than their more complex synonyms.

That's not to say you can never use complex words.  Most of us do on a daily basis.  But most of us are smart enough to realize when they're appropriate and when they aren't.  For as long as the English language has been around, it's been about simplicity.  Some of our rules are still around but throughout the history of the English language, in particular, we've been trying to make our language simpler.  Not more complex.  I've sometimes used words like "pretentious," when I could easily say, "all knowing asshole," (basically snobbish).  Your tone, manner and context are often a clue as to whether it's a word you use as a part of your normal everyday vocabulary.  Many of us are attracted to big words because they make us look smarter.  That's actually more like a five year old boy who puts on his father's tie or the five year girl who puts on her mother's high heels.  The kids do it to say they're grown up.  The intellectually insecure use big words to prove they're intelligent.

In fiction and literature you use simple words for one reason and one reason only... to make sure just about anyone can read your story.  Intelligence is overstated with word choice... and coherence is gravely understated.  The concern most people have seems to be about building up ones vocabulary more so than it is about making sure that vocabulary can be understood.  I've always been curious... what's the point of having an awesome vocabulary if in the process you eliminate your ability to communicate with others?

Words get even better, though.  In fiction and as parts of speech they become awesome because of how much they can always change or how they are used by other means.  Language--any language, really--evolves all the time.  There is a certain section of our population that is absolutely abhored by the use of such acronyms like LOL, WTF and simplifying the spelling of words like "what" to simply "wat" or "wut!?"  Most people are smart enough NOT to use such phrases and words offline.  I won't say I've never run into someone who didn't say "LOL" instead of laughing.  I have.  "WTF" is used offline often.  I've got a friend who doesn't like to say "what the f@$k" because he doesn't like the dreaded "F" word, but he'll say WTF whenever he's baffled by anything!  There are some who are upset by this sort of thing.  "What is our language becoming!" they say. 

This is nothing new.  People will be screaming about the devolution of language and words forever.  They always have.  The internet really brought this to a head for certain people.  Who would've thought a book simply titled "TTYL" that was nothing more than IM conversations would somehow cause people to get up in arms about defending language?  Well, there was such a book.  And while it wasn't big, there were forums made up for the sake of "defending" the English language.  It was strange for two reasons.  The first being the book... TTYL was a young adult novel.  The second was these same people were in the forums using the very language they claimed was destroying language.  It was funny stuff.  I don't particularly like when people say, "wut r u up 2?"  I don't like substituting letters for words or numbers for words and I don't particularly care for leet language, but even this has a history of always being used.  We have used acronyms and simplified the spelling of words for a long time.  Remember AIDS is just an acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.  But no one wants to say that five times fast.  RADAR is also an acronym, though it's not acknowledged as one anymore.  It stood for RAdio Detecting And Ranging.  We use acronyms all the time.  The Dark Knight is referred to by some as TDK, for example.  Final Fantasy becomes FF.  Go to a Star Wars forum and they'll refer to each of the films by acronyms.  TPM (The Phantom Menance), AOTC (Attack of the Clones), ROTS (Revenge of the Sith), ANH (A New Hope), TESB (The Empire Strikes Back), ROTJ (Return of the Jedi).  They're not considered "words" but you know what people mean when they say them in particular environments.  Most won't say ANH, for example, on other forums.

People are also big on how words change.  There's slang, which I detest (but still use, it can't be helped).  The word "cool" has been used as slang since well before any of us were born (there's evidence showing that it has been used as far back as the days of Aristotle).  My grandmother was always fond of saying "You look sharp," when in reality what she meant was, "You look good."  Nowadays I hear the word "krunk" get thrown around (which can mean crazy drunk, in some cases).  When I was a teenager most of my peers used the expression "That's tight!"  It was another one of those pitiful attempts to replace the word "cool" or "awesome".  Just years before us, my aunt's generation always used the word "phat".  "Man, that's phat."  or "Man this cake is phat!" or "Dude your Mom is phat."  I assume that last one got many many teenagers in trouble. 

The best example of how words change will probably always be the word "Gay."  The word originated from the 12th century.  Often it meant "joyful" or "carefree".  This definitiion of gay stuck for a long time.  You still hear expressions like, "Gay old time," and such.  Of course, the definition of gay began to become sexualized.  Still keep to that idea of "carefree," at first, though.  For example a gay man at one point was considered someone who partook in several affairs without a care in the world (meaning... he could be married but sleeping with several women on the side... or not married and sleeping with several women... or even that he could be sleeping with some men and some women etc.).  The "carefree" part still lingers.

Nowadays, of course, Gay means to refer to someone as a homosexual.  That's the sexualized meaning now.  It also takes on a political definition to represent those who are fighting for gay rights.  You can also find teenagers who say things like, "That is so gay."  Using "gay" as a meaning for stupid or something like that.  The word has a lot of history and meaning behind it.  The definition of certain words are destined to change while others will stay the same.  Some words will just take on more definitions.  Either way, the point is simple: Language changes.  it always has and it probably always will.

Words are the building blocks of communication, but they don't work on their own.  Without tone, mood, body language etc. some words can feel powerless when missing those things.  This might be where the power of words really prevails.  You need not take my word for it.  All you have to do is look back through history and see how the mood and tone of specific speeches has been able to empower and make people feel good or empowered in some way.  You see it all the time.  My high school principal for my first two years was such a good speaker no one cared that he was a hard ass, for example.  You see a lot of protest empowered by these sorts of things.  And, of course, it's used for bad purposes as well.  If I have to give you an example you're not much for paying attention to history anyway.

In fiction, words basically make up the whole of the story.  There are tons of people who get upset over books using simplistic words and language.  They're called literary snobs and they claim to understand the use of language... but they can never seem to grasp that our language has always been catering toward the simplistic and that we've ALWAYS been looking for ways to communicate in a simpler manner and that coherence has always been what people strive for.  The idea that because you've got more complex and much more difficult to understand language signifies you must be some kind of literary genius is like saying that because you weigh the least in Fat Camp you must not be Fat.  As I've mentioned before, many of our most well-loved authors never wrote much beyond a grade school reading level.  The best example is usually John Steinbeck, who never wrote anything that was challenging in terms of vocabulary and complex words.  Most of Steinbeck's works were also short.  I don't recall J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway doing that either.  As I said, comprehension will trump complexity any day of the week.  Vocabulary just isn't a good indicator of what one knows.

Of course, thre are bad words too.  When I was growing up a friend of mine in elementary school told me there were no bad words.  At the time, however; he had just discovered cursing and thought it was cool to do it.  At this point in his life (as if being in your early twenties constitutes much of a life to begin with) he swears that he's all cursed out (haha, you see what I did there?).  Not likely.  When he stubs his toe or just plain screws something up he still has a tendency to utter "Oh shit!" or "f@#k!"  And if he gets mad or I do something inconsiderate... or if he just plain wants to mess around with me he has a tendency to call me all sorts of swears.  Don't get mad, this is what some friends do. 

Bad words, of course, are just as subjective as so called "good ones."  Depending on where you live and who you're surrounded by etc.  You know when to use specific words.  You probably won't call your boss a dipshit because you might lose your job.  But you'd have no problem calling someone an asshole if he was actually being one (or just telling your friend he's being one).  You also have few problems joking around with friends in the same manner.  Everyone is different.  But let's be clear, no one is a regular Ned Flanders.  I'm sure plenty of things "burn your biscuits," but I'm willing to bet lots of things "piss you off" too.  On the other hand, being offended is just as subjective.  Someone might get offended by being called an "asshole" and another person might be offended by being called... I don't know... Barbara Streisand.  There are many words that people just, you know, hate.  If someone ever says "What up, dawg," to me, for example I typically ignore them because I hate the word "dawg" so much I don't even like to acknowledge it, and if someone has to use it to get my attention then I already know I'm dealing with a jerk anyway.  On the other hand, some probably don't have any problems with the word "dawg."  I had a boss who absolutely detested the word "sir" and that was bad for me because I was raised to address authority as "Yes, sir/ma'am" and "No sir/ma'am."  It by no means nearly cost me my job but it was quite odd to find that if I called him a jackass he was perfectly okay with that.  If I called him "sir" he would get extremely upset with me.  
Beyond that, however, it just shows the power of words once again.  Hitting someone will always be bad and wrong (unless he hits you first!) but people are quite more upfront about the language people use more so.  The expression is that bruises fade.  And while a lot of people are big on saying, "Oh they're just words, they can't hurt anyone," there are even more people who will stand up and disagree stating that emotional damage is just as bad (maybe worse) than physical damage in and of itself.  As I said, any set of words can be used to cut someone down to size.  There is such a thing as verbal abuse, you know.  There have been many friendships that have died because of what one friend said more so than because that friend hit them.

Many of you, I'm sure, have used so-called "Bad words" before.  There is a manner in how they can be used.  Comedians use them all the time and can sometimes make them funny.  On the other hand, as I said, sometimes it depends on where you are.  There are some places of the country where the intense swearing isn't really bad at all.  In fact it's so normal they don't even realize it.  You probably wouldn't get away with a lot of swearing in a place down south, but in certain places you might find it's so normal people have no idea it's actually offensive.  Personally, there's a lot more language I don't find offensive than there is language I actually find offensive.  It's easy to see why these words are offensive and how they came to be, although it does seem like the validity of the offensiveness has toned down over the years.  When I was a kid, for example, I recall that saying the word "damn" was just as bad today as saying "fuck".  Now damn is hardly considered a swear.  One of the funniest controversies to ever happen in cinema was how Clark Gable said the word "damn" in Gone with the Wind.  At the time (the year was 1939) it was one of those moments where people thought saying it was absoluely terrible. 

Even today, of course, books, movies, video games and television shows get challenged all the time for their language.  Even in 2010 the most controversial thing about J.D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is the language used in the second half of the book despite the fact that you'll find several more books that use far more of that vulger language than Catcher in the Rye does.  Hell, the first five minutes of "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back," drops more "F" bombs than Catcher in the Rye.  Explicit language has and probably always will cause controversy in literature. 

And I will sympathize and say that sometimes it isn't exactly necessary to use such words.  Especially in trying to enhance your vocabulary.  The "F" word can be used for almost any part of speech.  Most times it becomes an extra word thrown in for... well, who knows what reason really.  In truth, any sentence turns out the same without the use of such swears to enhance them.  In particular saying, "That's pretty f-ing awesome," is going to come out exactly the same as, "That's pretty awesome."  The meaning doesn't change with the extra word.  As I said, however, you've probably still used such words.  If you stub your toe, for example, you're far more likely to utter a swear (or scream) than say something like, "Oh, darn, my toes gone black again," in a calm voice.

Are words powerful?  Sure.  More powerful than people could possibly imagine.  And their power can be enhanced in various ways.  Mostly, though, they serve as the building blocks of language.  And while being intelligent is a blessing, it is no where near the blessing of being coherent and understood.

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October 16, 2010
Very well-written and thought out review, Sean. There is a lot going on here.
April 24, 2010
I've read through half of your write up...I shall return, I wanted to give you kudos less I forget...my eyes are acting up in my old age LOL! I am going to print this out and see it to your fans... ;-)
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About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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Word (words) may refer to a spoken word or a written word, or sometimes, the abstract concept behind either.
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