Deep words and mealy-mouthing
I asked someone with limited education what an opioid was and, not surprisingly, he didn’t know but his response made me ponder. “Deep words”, he said by way of explaining that his teachers has not reached that level of language at his school. It set me thinking. Our vocabulary has to grow fast these days to keep up with new inventions, bizarre titles and the myriad forgettable mnemonics we are assailed with. Are we treating words with the respect they are due? Do we cultivate our language so that generations to come will admire what we have written as much as we admire Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
As the speed of life has increased so our language has abbreviated. Listen to air traffic controllers guiding an aircraft to its runway or setting it on a course across the world and you will comprehend practically nothing. Figures, code words, abbreviations mingle together to make an archipelago of commands to guarantee the safety of several hundred passengers.
We all use abbreviations and jargon, mostly unthinkingly, for much of what we say. ‘No one size fits all’, ‘out of the box thinking’, ‘long story short’ – the phrases go on and on. As with brass rubbing, each additional use wears the subject thinner. Eventually the phrase gets put in single quotes, then double quotes, before being abandoned to Lucy Kellaway to tear it to shreds. I wish I was as clever as John Betjeman and could write the equivalent of “Phone for the fish knives, Norman” about squeegee language.
Almost imperceptibly keywords have crept upon us to threaten the development of beautiful language altogether. Peer into the minds of the technical cognoscenti to discover what vocabulary their education level equipped them with and write your web site or promo with only those words they revel in. Just as modern music has become increasingly discordant so modern words have become jarringly strident. Watch the journalists bathe in ‘whopping’, when something is marginally bigger, or ‘grabs’, if an option is presented, or – worst of all – ‘behemoth’ to describe a company with more than one director on its board.
These mealy-mouthed phrases reach their lowest point when a speaker is thanked for taking time ‘from his or her busy schedule’. One who was particularly irritated by the statement interjected “Oh, I’m not busy at all, I can stay all day”. The laugh that followed proved that the audience simply didn’t believe him.
Artificial intelligence will impose a whole new round of incomprehension. I sometimes ask difficult questions of robots participating in the so-called chat that web sites provide for the spectacularly dim. On three recent occasions they have given up the unequal struggle and sent me an email of our conversation – minus the last devastatingly difficult question. And this is why I think the struggle must continue to be unequal. We have to defeat these attempts to improve on humankind. If we do not, the robots will impose not just our language but our very way of thinking, our attempts at beauty, our reaching for the stars.
The danger of conformity is a lack of thought, a declining ability to create and a life of predetermined ritual from which there will be no escape. There is comfort in ritual but little soul. Now is the time to open our eyes to what we have in our lives. Years ago one of my children, then aged four, observed a high flying aircraft leaving a vapour trail. “Look Dad,” he said, “there’s another plane scratching the sky”. Such a beautiful concept.
For all my grumbling I still think there is only one word to describe life. It’s not original but I bet you have not heard it for the last six months. Supercalafragalisticexpialadocious.
Go on – you invent a delicious, lip-smacking word. Do it for humanity.
You’ll feel better for it.