Even after several years we still remember reading about an architect who always insisted on an aisle seat when traveling by train. We’ve long since forgotten the fellow’s name, but vividly recall his explanation that his many years of work had so heightened his sensitivity to architecture that he could not bear to see all the ugly buildings passing by. Although we sympathized with the poor architect’s plight, we also envied his ability to so easily avoid the source of his annoyance. After a certain number of years a writer develops a similarly visceral aversion to ugly language, but there is no aisle seat that can insulate him from the world’s constant abuse of words.
The point was brought to mind by a recent letter to the venerable National Review in which a teacher grouses at some length about the appallingly limited vocabularies of his charges. His account corroborates our own observation of young people, who are a most infuriatingly inarticulate lot, but we fear his missive only hints at the extent of the problem. He correctly notes the minimalist dialogue of modern movies and the monosyllabic lyrics of contemporary music, but he fails to mention the advertising industry, the news media, the political establishment, the publishing houses, and numerous other offenders against the English language. The education biz is also to be blamed, and we note that even National Review’s correspondent made an annoyingly slangy use of the word “stuff” in his otherwise well-written screed.
By force of habit we spend much of each day silently copy-editing what we see and hear, on the radio or on billboards or in brief conversations with convenience store clerks and so forth, and it’s become a most exhausting exercise. Sentences ending in prepositions or not seeming to end at all, randomly placed punctuation, participles dangling like a flasher’s private parts, faddish usages such as “impact” as a verb, improperly conjugated verbs — “seen” where “saw” is required is especially rampant around these parts — and people saying they could care less when they clearly mean they could not care less are just a few of the discordant notes in the cacophony of bad English that assault us every day. The last remaining refuge from all this painful noise is in old books, old movies, and the select company of a rapidly dwindling group of old friends.
For all the talking going on, one can’t help noticing that the National Review’s disgruntled teacher is quite right about the paucity of words being used. The common lexicon is shrinking faster than the globally warmed polar ice caps in an Al Gore documentary, with all sorts of wonderfully descriptive and picturesque words being jettisoned. “Picturesque” and “jettisoned” are probably endangered by now, and we wanted to make use of them while there was still an outside chance someone might recognize their meaning. Anyone who does use words not found in a sixth-grade reader or the latest rap hit does so at his peril, because people are often offended by words they don’t know. We get that often, even with words we acquired from children’s books of long ago. It’s always reminiscent of a running gag in the shrewd dystopian movie satire “Idiocracy,” in which an early 21st Century man of average intelligence finds himself in a drastically dumb-downed future where his ordinary plain-spoken English is regarded as “faggy” and pretentious.
The fingernail-on-a-chalkboard aesthetics aside, this devolution of the language will hard disastrous social effects. Whatever lofty thoughts might inadvertently pop into the typically empty heads of today’s youngsters will remain unformulated for lack of words to express them, and the lower ideas that lend themselves to grunts and groans will be the only ones that find expression. Miscommunications will occur more frequently, with the usual unfortunate results. The failure to enforce basic standards of language will further undermine the very notion of standards, if the word survives at all. Ultimately the totalitarians will take advantage of the public’s inability to articulate any alternative idea, as they always do, and if not they’ll just continue to manipulate the language with the same frightening success they’ve enjoyed in recent years.
It’s all very depressing and stuff.
— Bud Norman