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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.

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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?”

 

 

Enthusiasm

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Since it was 41 years ago today that I graduated from high school, I’ve been walking down memory lane all afternoon. It’s the only exercise I’ve had all day.

I found the newspaper clipping with a few quotes from our commencement speech, given by a Dr. Paul Mori. One thing he said was,

“Enthusiasm is more important than professional skill.”

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I think he must have both, because when I googled him, this is what I found:

Dr. Paul Mori Jr, MD is a radiology doctor who practices in Jacksonville, FL. He is 92 years old and has been practicing for 69 years.

That is just amazing to me! To find your calling and passion and stick with it for 69 years must take a whole lot of enthusiasm and commitment.

He also said:

 

“The single most important tool you have is the knowledge of the English language and the ability to communicate.”

 

I feel like I left high school with this tool dull and rusty. Over the years I have tried to sharpen it and use it so it would not stay rusty. I don’t think it was just me from my school, but many students in many schools in the seventies graduated without a lot of fundamentals. Today I can skillfully use verbs like google and tweet, but I wish that I’d been more like Napoleon Dynamite back then. I wish I’d followed my heart into journalism.

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Instead, I headed off to college to major in marketing. Eventually, after four kids, I graduated with a degree in education and had the joy of sharing my knowledge of English with children. Now, however, I’ve come full circle, back to where my heart was my junior year. I write. I don’t do it for a living, but I do feel enlivened and purposeful when I’m writing.

 

I don’t remember Dr. Mori’s speech. But, I think we all went out into the the world that afternoon enthusiastically. Oh, to go back 41 years and grab some of that now!

Words Make a Big Difference

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In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, ​Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art​, she talks a lot about language. One thing she discusses is the changes that were made in the Book of Common Prayer. I was not raised with this, but we do have a copy in our home, so I went to browse it one day. It has prayers and Psalms in it. The Psalms I am familiar with.

Engle said, “Where language is weak, theology is weakened” ​ and went on to give a few examples of places where the original language was more detailed and poetic. Such as: The pelican in the wilderness has become vulture; praise him dragons and all deeps has become sea monsters.

​But in this next example, the words make a big difference in the impact of the original message: ​ “Be ye sure that the Lord He is God; it I He that has made us and not we ourselves” ​ now reads: ​“For the Lord Himself has made us and we are His.”

To make the language contemporary we could just cut out the thees and thous​, the giveths and takeths, and keep the rest as it is.