An embarrassment of words
A fool’s voice is known by the multitude of words. A fool’s voice is known by the multitude of words. A fool’s voice is known by the multitude of words. A fool’s voice…
A long-ish, but precise, thesis on how words have taken over our lives. The Weekly Rondo is going to be a discussion thread on another post which you can find here.
“And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection.”
— Mr. Collins, “Pride and Prejudice” (p. 135)
What is a subject you could talk about for 45 minutes, unprepared, without notes? For me, it’s Jane Austen. Not only are her novels magnificent, she’s one of the best writers the English-speaking world has ever produced.
People are often quick to write off her books as silly romance novels with little substance, but any true Austenite knows just how clever, incisive and nuanced her work is. Also, all of her jokes still hold up.
What I love most about her writing is her incredible characterizations of people in these so-called “comedies of manners.” A common archetype in her novels is the silly, frivolous and/or self-important character who does not know when to shut up.
The quote that opened this essay is from when Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet in no fewer than *checks notes* 630 words before “it was absolutely necessary to interrupt him…”
To make the proposal even sillier, he begins by outlining:
His reasons for marrying (which have nothing to do with Lizzie.)
His interactions with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
How she will find Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s condescension remarkable.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s wish that he marry a gentlewoman.
How, although there are many suitable women who could be his wife, he feels it’s his duty to protect her father’s estate.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
How her father probably won’t die for several years.
How he wishes not to flatter himself.
Also, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Almost all of the characters in Austen’s books can be divided into “silly” and “serious.” Aside from Mr. Collins, characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Wickham and Lydia are verbose, obnoxious and have very little substance. They stand in stark contrast to characters like Elizabeth, Jane, Mr. Darcy, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Bennet and Georgiana Darcy, who are thoughtful, introspective and take a more calculated approach to life.
They don’t make words like they used to
“Brevity is confidence. Length is fear.”
— “Smart Brevity” by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz
In the aforementioned book, the co-creators of Axios talk about how they built their company based on writing less to say more. I appreciate long-form journalism and lush novels, but I have to respect this kind of journalism that boils down the news to a scannable, one-page format. It gets straight to the point, and you aren’t left scratching your head about what just happened.
I read a LOT of bad writing nowadays… especially from well-educated people! When you read between the lines (pun intended), you begin to see that the more verbose, careful-to-not-offend and “intellectual” writing comes across as insecure and disingenuous.
Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:
Too much words: Even though high school is in the past, I still see writers using too many modifiers to punch up sentences.
“There was a lifeless corpse in the middle of the room.” I would be worried if the corpse wasn’t lifeless.
“This new serum will lower your blood pressure completely!” Is it going to lower my blood pressure or kill me?
“She was fully-clothed in an extravagant designer gown.” Should I have assumed she was naked in this scenario?
Adverbs. You don’t need most of them. In most writing, it sounds dishonest or adds nothing.
Tip-toeing around the issues: There’s a modern trend of trying to de-stigmatize peoples’ situations by using euphemisms or just renaming them completely. It just results in utter confusion and doesn’t actually fix anyone’s problems.
I recently read an opinion piece about “the unhoused” and “people experiencing homelessness.” Are they on a waiting list to buy a condo in an upscale community or going slumming in a virtual simulation?
“Person-first” disability language like “person with hearing loss” as opposed to “deaf.” I’m partially deaf in one ear, and the first time someone explained this to me, I responded with, “WHAT?” 👵
“He passed.” … a kidney stone?
A great enormity of pseudo-intellectualism: Everyone loves being in a conversation with someone who has to prove they are smarter by using bigger words. I used to have a poster in my office with phrases lifted from actual published essays. Here are some of my favorites:
“Tyranny of formalist monotheism.”
“Nihilisticly privledging the Marxist.”
TL;DR: It’s a whole lotta words to say nothing. We know you went to a state school like the rest of us. Say what you mean.
Never say the name of The Scottish Play
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
— “Macbeth,” Act IV, Scene I
King James I of England and Scotland was obsessed with witches. After his marriage to Anne of Denmark, the ship carrying them back to Scotland was beset by violent storms that almost killed the newlywed couple. The Danish court was fascinated by the dark arts, so James was primed to believe witches were the cause of this misfortune. It set him on the warpath to root witches out of Scotland.
It resulted in a witch hunt and the horrifying deaths of common midwives and peasants. He even penned a treatise called “The Daemonologie,” on which Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is based.
The play was cursed from the beginning. According to legend, the premiere was a disaster. The three witches used the words of an actual spell unleashing who-knows-what mischief into the world. A coven of witches cursed it for using “real incantations” (which just sounds like good marketing if you ask me). And several of the actors died in accidents on stage.
And this is why we don’t say the name of The Scottish Play in a theatre.
Generic, unoffensive subheading
“Macbeth” is not the only word that people are hesitant to say. Humans have been using euphemisms to get around saying words that felt distressing for ages.
According to Ralph Keyes’ “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms,” one of the oldest euphemisms on record was created because of northern Europeans’ fears of bears. Beorn or “the brown one” was used in order to not accidentally summon them, which, ironically, morphed into the modern English word for “bear.”
Performing artists will find all sorts of ways to get around saying “good luck.” Some cultures won’t say the name of the recently deceased because it violates sacred norms (and might summon a ghost). And many religions avoid using the name of God in vain. (”Oh my gosh!” is practically my catchphrase.)
As antiquated and foreign as some of these sound, we still do this today. In stunning fashion, Stanford’s administration showed last week that they have a LOT of time on their hands. The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative of the school’s IT leadership published a list of forbidden words. Words that might result in supernatural mischief, summon a ghost or worse… hurt someone’s feelings.
While some words indeed are hurtful and should be avoided for tact and kindness’ sake — and I don’t feel the need to list them here because you guys are smart cookies — this list is the result of a frenzied mind. Here are some of the bangers on that list:
“Blind study: Unintentionally perpetuates that disability is somehow abnormal or negative, furthering an ableist culture.” Alternatively, they suggest you use “masked study,” which I feel will run into some confusion when explaining the “Little Albert” experiment or any study done during the height of a pandemic.
“Straight: This term implies that anyone who is not heterosexual is bent or not ‘normal.’” As opposed to “gay,” which just means “happy.”
“Grandfather: This term has its roots in the ‘grandfather clause’ adopted by Southern states to deny voting rights to Blacks.”
“Whitespace: Assigns value connotations based on color (white = good), an act which is subconsciously racialized.” This refers to the unused space on paper or design work… which is, presumably, white.
In the “person first” category, instead of using the word “prostitute” as a noun, use the much longer and more confusing “person who engages in sex work.” As a verb, it “Unnecessarily correlates corrupt or unworthy purposes with sex work.”
“Beat(ing) a dead horse: This expression normalizes violence against animals.”
“Submit: Depending on the context, the term can imply allowing others to have power over you.”
The list is 13 pages long if you want to read it, but it’s clear that whoever wrote this has very little understanding of history or culture. Most of their definitions are incorrect, bizarre, or they REALLY had to read into an obscure meaning.
Terrible writing. Terrible writing everywhere
“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
You know how your mom taught you that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? I find the wisest people apply this advice in many ways. There’s a lost virtue of not telling everyone every single one of your thoughts and opinions, of not using an economy of words, of letting things speak for themselves.
The effort it takes to restrain yourself, edit, slash and disengage with unworthy pursuits makes shouting off at the mouth much easier than sitting in silence while most people drown themselves in their own words.
The alternative is making entertainment for your neighbors by becoming Mr. Collins.
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This post reminds me of a pet project that I've begun: a look at figures of speech, especially metaphors or comparisons. If you stop and think about it, we (North American) use a lot of figures of speech as verbal shorthand without understanding their origins and occasionally using them incorrectly. It fascinates me, especially since I work with a lot of people for whom English is their second language and sometimes I wonder how they keep up with everything.