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“The young writer will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language. He will hear the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of his society, each speaking a language of its own. All of us come under the spell of these unsettling drums; the problem, for the beginner, is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the excitement, and not be carried away.” – – An E.B. White Reader

 

Have you heard the beat of new vocabularies? Nouns turned into verbs are used all over. We google subjects and we tweet, though we aren’t birds. We text and snapchat each other, but our communication is often abbreviated to words without vowels; we have a new shorthand to meet the needs of a fly by friendship.

I am familiar with several special segments of society that have a language specific to its members. One of these is the field of education, a world full of acronyms and oft used terms. Overuse certainly kills the charm of some words. I can think of some that need to be retired, or at least put on the back burner. Some of these would be: partner (as in ‘partner with’, not ‘Howdy, Partner!’), relationships, ownership, mission statement, intentional, and unpack. Contemporary religion also has its share of overused expressions, such as authentic, relevant, passionate.

The best point White made is to “not be carried away.” Words are wonderful and repetition has its place. But like a parent who threatens “if I have to tell you one more time”, frequently repeated words lose their appeal and begin to fall on deaf ears.

Truer Than True

 

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I love to read statements made by authors (or their characters) that are even more true today than when they were written. The following examples are some that have jumped out at me in the past couple of years. I have ordered them backwards chronologically.

⇒  “I wouldn’t be surprised if a show about nudists was a hit…_ “ – I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg (2010) 

Now we have Dating Naked, Naked and Afraid, and a host of others

⇒  “Look at television, Father had said- Dad is shown as a dummy who stumbles around and breaks things and gets into trouble, usually to be rescued by a small child or a pet. Children watch hours of this junk every week.” – Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor (1985)

A 2001 study by Erica Scharrer in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media found that the number of times a mother told a joke at the father’s expense increased from 1.80 times per episode in the 1950s to 4.29 times per episode in 1990.

⇒  “We aren’t persecuted very much nowadays, we Christians, at least not overtly. But in point of fact there is a good bit of sub-rosa persecution, ridiculing if not reviling. In children’s books, death and sex used to be taboo, Now death and sex are “in”, and Christianity is the new taboo; other religions are appreciated, Buddhism, Hinduism, the pre-Christian Druidism; Christianity is not tolerated. And not only in children’s literature. It has been made taboo by those who do not understand it … of course we intelligent people don’t need God and we certainly aren’t interested in the cross. Only those poor people who aren’t strong enough on their own go in for the false promises of religion. – The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle (1977)

All I can say is this is even more prevalent today than ever before. I see it not only in children’s literature, but on TV programs, in the news, on social media.

⇒  “We have – particularly in the United States, particularly in the suburbs – allowed ourselves to live in a child-centered world; the children have become more important to the parents than the parents are to each other; and suddenly the children grow up and leave the nest and the parents find themselves alone with each other, and discover with horror that there is nobody there.” – A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972)

Wow! It was surprising to me to hear her talk about a child-centered world in 1972. Today’s world is even more child-centered, from play-dates and birthday party productions to travel sports teams.

⇒  “When a city begins to grow and spread outward from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments.” – Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck (1961)

I’ve seen this happen in Jacksonville and have seen the results of it in Birmingham. Both of these towns have and are making efforts to bring people back to the city centers.

⇒  “Today, the language of advertising enjoys an enormous circulation. With its deliberate infraction of grammatical rules and its crossbreeding of the parts of speech, it profoundly influences the tongues and pens of children and adults.” – An E.B. White Reader, from the chapter titled “Prefer the Standard to the Offbeat “ by E.B. White (1959).

Here are some examples of intentional infractions in advertising:

“More power. More style. More technology. Less doors.” – Mercedes breaks the grammar rule that says “less” is used with mass nouns and “fewer” with countable nouns: “Door” is a countable noun; ergo, we’re obliged to say “fewer doors.”

“For hair and/or body, or both.” (Old Spice)

“Got milk?”

 

 

A Little Less Tech

 

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Oak Mountain – Pelham, Alabama – November, 2015

 

Way back in 1954, E.B. White had this to say when speaking of Henry David Thoreau:

“In our uneasy season, when all men unconsciously seek a retreat from a world that has got almost completely out of hand, his house in the Concord woods is a haven. In our culture of gadgetry and the multiplicity of conveniences his cry, ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!’ has the insistence of a fire alarm.”

Oh, if Thoreau could only see us now! Talk about a culture of gadgetry! Yesterday, one of my students told me he was tired because he was up late.

“Homework?”  I asked, though that was purely wishful thinking.

“I was texting,” he replied.

I wonder what Thoreau would have thought  if he’d seen an irobot self-propelled vacuum cleaner. Or a Keurig. Or a Kindle.

I am not advocating for a house in the Concord woods, though a nice little woodsy retreat would be nice. And I don’t think we need to live like the Amish. But, I do think we could all do with a little less tech and a little slower pace.

Words from E.B. White

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“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

These words were written by E.B. White in 1949. They take on even more weight in view of 911.  However, as Christians, we have much more than a hint of our mortality. We know how this earthly life will end. The question is, what about eternity?