In Defence of Language

I’ve just started reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I am once again astounded by how skilled CS Lewis was at taking complex concepts and explaining them in ordinary, accessible language. The man was certainly intelligent.

At the beginning of the book he talks about the importance of the definition of words…

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not ‘a gentleman’ you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully- ‘Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edwards is far more truly a gentleman than John?’ They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man ‘a gentleman’ in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is a ‘gentleman’ becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes). A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

As a writer I am rather sensitive about the use of words. Some may call it old fashioned, but there is a certain beauty to the written word, which I feel ought to be protected. I don’t profess to be an expert, merely an admirer. People who write ought to be passionate about words and the rules which govern their placement. We can admit that some rules are crazy, but we should protect the overall cohesion of the language. Which is why I despair when I hear that ‘experts’ suggest that SMS (or text)-speak should be considered a new language.

Language, they say, is an evolving thing. I accept that I can’t change it; but I wish that someone – presumably authors, editors and publishers – would ensure that the evolution of the language is beneficial. And I have to say, some are not pulling their weight.

For example some of the words added in June 2016 to the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • air punch: an act of thrusting one’s clenched fist up into the air, typically as a gesture of triumph or elation
  • bish bosh: used to describe an improper or unfinished piece of work usually due to laziness
  • bish-bash-bosh: used to describe the efficiency of a process you have just explained, often used if there are 3 steps to the process
  • consessus: a body of people who sit together, an assembly; esp. a council of church elders

(I was going to report some of the more recent entries, but then I’d have to make this post MA15+). Now, in its defence the OED does call itself the “definitive record of the English language”. I suppose that in order to be definitive therefore, you have to repeat just about all sorts of tripe, because someone, somewhere is using the word.

And just to show the OED isn’t the only offender, the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

  • dogtor: a veterinarian who treats only dogs
  • noice: extremely good, very nice

I apologise for entering semi-rant mode, but I am of the view that not just because a word is used – even in common language – that it should be dignified in a Dictionary.  Compare these recent ‘efforts’ to some of the words invented by Shakespeare.

Is it just me being crazy or are we losing the quality of the English language?


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