A minor meditation on words.
by, 06-28-2012 at 03:38 AM (1216 Views)
You might not care about this. I'll admit it's niche and probably boring to some.
The two latest emails in my inbox are both from myself. Ignoring how lonely that might seem, it's their contents which are relevant. Between them are five words:
Four of those were new to me, and one of them I simply wanted to make sure I understood correctly. I was giddy with excitement. Four whole new words to use! I started thinking of scenarios where I could put them to use, how I could express an idea that much more succinctly or how I might add more nuance to an idea. I read them out loud, reveling in how they played across my tongue, how they sounded in my ear. I tore the words apart, gawking at their prefixes and peeping at their innards, studying their construction to see just what made them tick. I started to look them up in an etymology dictionary a reference I occasionally read for pleasure. Oh, none of them produced quite the same pleasure on their own as when I first discovered the word "cognoscenti" (Seriously, try saying that out loud a few times. How could you not fall in love with it?), but part of the fun is of course forming sentences with these words so you can get the full musicality of the language.
This isn't standard.
My name is electric_blue_kirby, and I am a logophile. I like words and everything to do with them. I have an opinion on the Harvard comma. I follow obscure debates on niche issues amongst linguists. In contrast, I've often heard that the average person uses only around 500 different words per day. I don't know how true that actually is, but I can have a fair amount of trust in the veracity of my empirical experiences. While using what I consider standard parts of my vocabulary, there has been a frighteningly common trend.
"Wow, you know so many big words! You must be so smart!"
"Why are you trying to sound smart by using big words?"
I'll start with the obvious. Neither of these two example responses actually address what was said with the words, only their perceived complexity. "Well, when the human biosystem is secreting monohydrogen dioxide upon the corpus, it is because it is suffused with excess hydration and thusly it must expel fluid to maintain proper homeostasis." Or, more simply: "Sweating is how the body gets rid of excess water." Which is a false statement, never mind any of the other issues with that example sentence. Yet neither of the two aforementioned responses make note of that. Rather, the former would assume the statement valid (if they even understood it) and the latter would believe it to be from a pretentious narrator. Neither of them actually addressed the point because both were more concerned with how the statement was presented than with the statement itself. I like words like "peccadilloes," but the presumed complexity of the words are not more important than what the words are conveying. This represents a major stumbling block to valid discourse.
And while it's vexing to get immature responses about how your use of vocabulary is simply putting on airs (with no hope of refuting that point as they refuse to believe that the words you've used are just common argot, because if they don't readily recognize it, then of course nobody else does, right?) what's more worrying is why these two responses are so common. It's easy to say that people simply aren't interested in reading and writing. I won't deny that I've heard more than one teenager describe reading as "gay." However, I suspect part of the problem lies with the education system (this is where the blog post takes a decidedly American focus). While high schools surely differ, I'll relate to you an anecdote from the one I went to. We were tasked with reviewing a peer's paper. I laboriously went over the one I was reviewing, making several notations of places I felt it could be improved. I received mine back. It was barren but for one note: "Good. Used lots of big words." This was a 12th grade AP English course. In less than a year, that person would be going to college.
That school did not teach us how to write well. If you're presently in or have been to college, perhaps your school had a mandatory course teaching students the basics of writing a report. From what I've heard anecdotally, this isn't uncommon. Sparing further elaboration, most college students are terrible writers. While perhaps a more elite institution might have higher standards, many professors in my experience can be wowed by simply presenting an argument or a point well, rather than actually fully understanding the argument (thankfully the journalism professors are not nearly as simple, or I might just lose all hope). While my GPA appreciates high marks on essays about concepts I don't fully understand or books I didn't even read, it tells me that even at the end of their formal education, many students will graduate with their degrees with low levels of writing competency, because the expectations placed upon them are equally low.
You see, it wasn't until I was taking a class specifically designed for journalism students that I even heard the term "gerund." I'd been through K-12 schooling, and not once had we gone over some of the simple grammar that was covered in that one class. Nor would anyone not taking that specific class come across it in their other classes. Within two or three years of actually competent classes focused on teaching the craft of writing, I can recognize that my own skills have improved drastically. But this comes with a caveat: Only those majoring or minoring in a field that writes for a living were being taught how to compose sentences, to cherish words, to note how language sounds, how it reads. For everyone else, they could simply not care and they'd still get their ticket punched. Knowing how to properly form an argument, having an okay vocabulary and having the training in writing well (although I still have much room to improve) has made undergrad courses so rote as to basically be madlibs. Throw in a bit of pandering to your professor's interests or preferred style of argumentation, and you'll be earning high marks you don't honestly feel you deserve. While it's certainly possible I'm simply underestimating myself, only one professor has ever not been that simple to impress, an exception which proved the rule.
I feel this is the issue here. You have people who throughout their academic career are never taught or expected to understand anything beyond basic writing competency. Anything beyond that is associated with serious academics rather than the common man (academics of course do so because they want to be taken seriously), and so you have a confluence of vocabulary level with general intelligence. Which is a false conflation, as has been previously demonstrated. Can we put an end to this false narrative? Knowing some words doesn't mean I have strong math skills, it doesn't mean I'm worldlier than you, it doesn't mean I'm an academic, it doesn't mean I'm smarter than you. All it at best demonstrates is, as has been stated, that I am a logophile. But the most fancifully wrapped turd is still a turd all the same. What might actually demonstrate the speaker's intelligence is what they use those words to say. And I just worry that in a world of "TL;DR," that point is getting lost. Or maybe I just lack the temporal perspective to realize how long people have been missing the point. It's not that I demand people understand that it's supposed to be "I was graduated from high school," rather than "I graduated high school," (although it would be grand if they did) but that what's basically an accepted ad hominem ought to stop for the good of honest, fruitful discourse, and a system which addresses the former point might hopefully help solve the latter.
Well, that's just a thought that's been bugging me. I felt the need to write it down and solicit opinion.
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