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October 27, 2006

Re: Careless with Our Language

Kim, the book you mentioned, Beyond Words, certainly is a much-needed publication. Can any of us understand each other nowadays, as language, like so much else, has become individualized? Between hip-hop slang on the mouths of white 15-year-old upper-middle-class boys (or worse, 50-year-old wannabe hipsters), or the text-speak of tweeners, or even the more-intellectual-than-thou elitists, it's a modern-day Babel. And Reveries today brings up another unfortunate phenomenon: corporate speak in the mouths of babes (the day my daughter asks me if I put a cover sheet on my TPS report I'll know the end of the world is near . . . ):

"Corporate lingo is worse than general slang and even curse words," says Mike Puccini, as quoted by Jared Sandberg in The Wall Street Journal (10/24/06). And yet, "it is infiltrating our homes, as unwelcome as water damage … pushing us to verbify nouns (to whiteboard, to effort, to calendar) and to nounify verbs (a solve)." Of course, when the kids come home with their own vocab, the result can be an almost total communications meltdown. "When Michael Shiller, a management consultant, wanted to talk with his 15-year-old daughter about where she was going with her friends, he told her, 'You have to recognize your ARAs and measure against them.'

"… His daughter, he says, ‘looked at me like I was from outer space.'" (ARA is “human resources” for Accountability, Responsibility and Authority). . . .

Denise Watkins, who learned her jargon in the pharmaceutical industry, says her that "when her second-grade daughter was studying vocabulary, she used 'paradigm shift' in a sentence for the word 'shift.'" The problem is perhaps more serious than most of us realize: "Kristine Fitch, editor of … Research on Language and Social Interaction, says linguistic patterns are sometimes habit, sometimes hidden agenda, sometimes both." She comments: "You can pretend it's just a habit … but it is meant to signify your status in a group to which the audience doesn't belong. You get to talk like the boss, or sound like the latest leadership manual." Or, as Jared Sandberg suggests: "It’s … a handy way to appear to know what you’re talking about when you don't."

Humor aside, these new tribal "languages" are separating us without scattering us as our forebears at the Tower of Babel were. The deconstruction of rules and meaning in language will, indeed, cause us to be "careless with our world," as Humphrys put it and Kim pointed out. Worse, it will make us careless with our relationships with others.

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One of the most frustrating things that used to happen to me as an adolescent was the enormous language gap between me and my peers. An enormous part of the problem is the general unfamiliarity of the modern adolescent with my friend the thesaurus, and the idea that "all synonymns were created equal", leading to imprecise use of words or downright misuse of them, just because they don't know what word they really want. I sadly foresee a day where the ability to concisely use polysyllabic words will limit American speakers to either "archaic" or "academic" labels.

I think a large part of this is due to the setup of the public school system, which somehow fails to teach communication for all that it purports to teach writing, reading, and the classics. While education has never been perfect at any time in history, the sad lack of fostering an appreciation for not only concise writing but precise speaking has given rise to the need for such specialized jargon, as people simply don't know the words to convey their thoughts anymore. And many of them don't know how to find out.

The problem has ramifications for the church, too; the more specialized the language of each different interest or age group becomes, the less universal the language of the church. Already, pastors must struggle between finding ways to interpret the language of the Christian heritage into "modern speak", or teach people to understand what the old words mean. I can only see the problem growing with time.


The funny thing is that the guy you quoted uses the word "verbify" to describe making verbs out of nouns.


English has over 500,000 words. To claim that those who have what would have passed as an eighth grade eduation 100 years ago as "elitist" and insinuate that they aren't really thinking in those words, but are merely trying g to exclude you or act snobbish, reeks of power-reduction of the "hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go" crowd.

To place a decent vocabulary in the same category with the barbarisms of management-speak, PC Newspeak, and educationese is self-defeating for those attempting to save some small portion of Christendom from the looming night.


Puzzled/Labrialumn: I was an English major and still am a word-lover. So when I mention "more-intellectual-than-thou elitists," I'm not talking about your typical well-educated or even average-educated individual who speaks well because it is the way we should all speak -- with a wide, varied, and informed vocabulary -- which is what I'm advocating in this post (a uniform, universal way of speaking, as opposed to the tribal clique-speak so prevalent today). I have a very specific person in mind for that particular "elitist" I mention -- those who are verbose merely to make others feel small and out of their particular group, as opposed to those who simply speak well. I've seen way too many of such elitists. What I love (call it schadenfreude) is when such a person tries to use a particular word or obscure anecdotal reference in a display of self-importance, only to find I know precisely what they mean without asking for clarification.


I find particularly loathsome the educationese barbarism of chaining 5 or more verbs together with commas in a single sentence.

Tolkien and Lewis pray for us!

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