Want to hear something scary? How about something disconcerting? Or something so nightmarishly unholy it will unleash upon you a torrent of antipathetic trepidation?
Well, you just read it. The above is not harnessing the English language — it is harassing it.
In the hundred thousand or so years since we first began wagging our chins — and the 5000 or so since we first put glyph to granite — nothing has emerged as a more efficient means of communication or coordination of our species. Words are just that good. Online and in print, however, I see a worrying upward trend toward excess. Wordiness needn’t necessarily, but has, subsumed brevity. And we are suffering for it. Tautological crimes are on the rise, fellow human — and it’s about time we deal with the root cause…
The revelation of the online reference tool has brought with it a generation of 60-second lexicographers who, with a quick Google search, have access to many lifetimes worth of literary canon. The result of this has not, as one might expect, resulted in great efficiency gains to our language, but rather the linguistic equivalent of a Pollock — with all the pretence of one, too.
That is not to say that reference tools are unhelpful. On the contrary, they have democratised language, removing it from the hands solely of the cultural hegemony which owned the language for so long. The issue lies in how we use reference tools. Namely, not as a means of reference, but as an end in and of themselves. Here’s the problem: it’s just so tempting to convince your reader that, yes, you do use proselytise in parlance is no less than an intellectual coup! Like most coups, however, it will be short-lived if you can’t produce the goods. And when these tools are used to paper over the cracks in a poor piece of writing, then I’m sorry to say that your putsch is very likely kaput.
Because let’s be real, that’s a situation in which we’ve all found our – selves: You’re just that little bit off the word count, or want to sprinkle some spice into your essay. What you do next is akin to lexicographical gentrification: you find the most gabardine word, head to Google, and search for synonyms.
Oftentimes, this is betraying the task. An essay isn’t about how wordily you can articulate an argument, but rather how efficiently you can do so. If the foundation isn’t solid, then it’s not wise to build a castle — perhaps you may want something linguistically more condo.
Admittedly, it is often the case that “fancier” words are a better fit for our writing, with their rich polysemy and nuance — and oftentimes it is expect – ed that we can articulate our point with pizazz. But the clothes do not make the man, and when these words do not improve efficiency then isn’t it just artifice?
Efficiency improvements are made to language all the time. We created the elision as a way to improve flow; punctuation to categorise. The not-so-humble emoji, even, represents a concision of communication.
Whether you see it as a progression or regression of our language is entirely your call, but you cannot argue the brevity and effectiveness with which it conveys a message: a picture may speak a thousand words, but so too does a capricious ;).
What is not efficient, however, is the propping up of poor prose with pernicious profligacy. Puh. I can see it now: McIntosh Hall’s “C” pigeonhole overflowing with strongly worded letters from the capital L literati. Save the paper, treehuggers.
You see, I am not advocating we make like the Luddites; we needn’t DDOS dictionary.com or torch the library’s reference section. What I am suggesting is that we take the nominative hint and use reference tools for, well, reference. Before reaching for the thesaurus, ask yourself: does my point need to be made clearer? If yes, fantastic! If not, take a leaf from the original boyband’s book and Let it Be.
The English language, we really mustn’t forget, is merely a means to an end. It is a vehicle that is just as likely to rust when we overfill the tank as it is to stop still when we neglect to fill it. It’s perhaps significant that we don’t yet have a direct antonym for gentrify. We are so obsessed with dressing up when sometimes the written equivalent of jeans and t-shirt is just more comfortable — for reader and writer. As someone who is always khaki, never denim, I get the allure of fancy words.
But sometimes denim is a nice fit for your “fit”. And there’s nothing wrong with that!