Friday, June 8, 2018

Losing the Weight of Words by Andrea Downing

     Since I am deep into a major home remodeling project at the same time as preparing to move house from the old homestead, I had a look back at some posts that appeared on my own blog.  This one comes from 2013 and I thought it was worth revisiting with a few changes and additions.  Hope you do, too--the thoughts about language here are certainly worth a second round of discussion!

traininsnowwyOne Christmas my daughter, knowing her mother's fanaticism about owning anything to do with the Old West, bought me something that was within her budget and definitely within my scope of interest.  It is a wood engraved illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 30th, 1872.  It depicts  'Wyoming Territory—A Passenger Train of the Union Pacific Railroad in a Snow-Drift, Near Wyoming Station' from a sketch by C. B. Savage.  While the illustration has been framed and found a place on my wall, I was also fascinated by the accompanying news article, which uses a language not often employed in modern journalism.  "The actual troubles of east-bound
passengers began at Ogden.  Previous to reaching that point, the travelers were quite jolly over the novel garb that nature had assumed, and fashioned brilliant stories to please and excite their far-away friends.  But…when provisions grew scarce, and patience rebellious…and the huge drifts swept revengefully over the trains…when the game and song, the story and flirtations had lost their charms…" You get the picture.  The newspaper was a weekly illustrated literary and news magazine which ran from 1852 until 1922.  During that time it covered news stories from the Civil War through WWI, and its illustrations evolved from engravings like mine through photographs and early cover illustrations by Norman Rockwell.
photo-3839855_20247821As the newspaper progressed and changed so, no doubt, did its language.  Language like clothing changes with time.  I, as a woman, am no longer in need of the millinery goods advertised on the back of the article and I wouldn't wear an organdy tunic even if it were trimmed with lace.  Nor would I talk or write in such a flowery style. Heading over to Peterson's Magazine, the story is similar.  Peterson's was started by the same team who published The Saturday Evening Post, although it obviously didn't last quite so long.  It began in 1842 as a cheaper version of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, sort of the Mademoiselle to Vogue perhaps? My August, 1873, issue contains patterns for such essentials as a 'Lady's Seaside Jacket' and a 'Tatting Basket,' while my August, 1878, edition has a song titled 'Yesterday.'    "We stood amid those bow'rs,/When last I wept adieu,/ Surrounded by fair flowers,/Of many a brilliant hue…"  Paul McCartney it ain't.  So this leads me to the question:  Why, when we are basically still speaking the same English, using the same words (more or less) are we not writing in such florid phrases?  This is not just a question of usage, of alright vs all right, or of words being employed in ways they hadn't previously been used (I'll buy that!), or of words no longer being spoken because they have taken on alternative meanings, e.g. "gay."
We talk about the vitality of the English language, how it continues to adapt, accept new words from other languages, moderate the use of still others while continuing to 'invent' still more.  Yet in truth, the way we speak and write those words has somehow become pared down, the figures of speech more direct, similes and metaphors more restrained. It's a question of fashion in the use of words. I'm not "weeping adieu" here to such extravagantly embellished phrases as those above, but perhaps we are losing something in going for the 'quick fix,' the direct approach in English usage.  Are we not losing Untitled1words?  I read recently that readers no longer have time to ascertain the meaning of obscure words; they do not want to be made to feel as if they are doing homework.  Writers are competing with television, internet, video games and a host of other distractions which are not as 'taxing' perhaps as reading a well-written novel and can more easily be put aside as time permits.  So what effect will this have on English usage?

One further idea that struck me while strumming through the bunch of ancient newspapers in my possession was that our concerns don't seem to have changed very much, despite the evolution of fashions in and out of language.  On the cover of London Opinion from 23 September, 1911, there is a series called 'Whipped Topics."  One of the topics, which I believe we would today call "News Briefs," states, "Paris has started an anti-talking machine league…"  Sounds to me just like an anti-cell phone or anti-texting movement.   OK, so the ads are, on the whole, out-dated:  "Don't Wear A Truss!" one screams while a section called 'Masculine Modes' deals with bowler hats and turn-ups (cuffs to Americans) on trousers.  Yet the one titled, 'How I Permanently Removed My Superfluous Hair' resonates as something still seen in women's magazines.  And this ad for weight loss photo-2 copymay not look modern but don't these still appear today?  Yet listen to the language and keep in mind that these words are not considered archaic today but…would they be used in an ad?  "The Great Remedy for Corpulence:  …Corpulence is not only a disease itself, but the harbinger of others….note the improvement, not only in the diminution of weight, but in the improved appearance and vigorous and healthy feeling it imparts…It is an unsurpassed blood-purifier and has been found especially efficacious…"
When was the last time you heard someone talk about his corpulence problem or speak of something that was efficacious to his health?  Writers do often use words that they wouldn't employ in everyday speech, and the S.A.T. English exams contain words students must learn—only to never practice them again.  Why is that?  It's not as if the language is finite, that when new words are invented, old words must die.
So, is there a dumbing down of the English language? Are we losing words?
     As a P.S. to this post, last night I started The Stories of John Cheever.  I haven't gotten very far, only half-way through the first story which, I believe, was written in 1947.  Yet already I'm thinking how many authors today would employ the words "asperity', 'bellicose' or even 'taciturn?'  The joke to me is that on an  e-reader, if you don't know the meaning of a word it is readily available by holding down and waiting for the dictionary to tell you--no heading off to find a dictionary as with paper books. So, I ask again:  are we losing words?

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14 comments:

Jannine Gallant said...

I know vocabulary words aren't pounded into kids heads in high school the way they were back in my day. I still use those words in speaking and in writing on occasion. But there are words I've heard my extremely smart, college-age daughter pronounce incorrectly. When I've corrected her, she said she'd never heard it said out loud but had read it. That's pretty darn sad. So, yes, we are losing words. Great post!

Margo Hoornstra said...

You pose an interesting question. I think, given all the other forms of visual entertainment we have today, people want a 'quick fix' they don't have to work too hard to get. Think about it. The written word was the primary form of entertainment back in the 1800s and early 1900s, of course it would be over the top flowery. (Not necessarily a bad thing.) It is too bad we're losing words, as you say. When I first started writing romantic fiction, I remember one of the guidelines was to 'write to a third grade reading level'. Kind of says it all, doesn't it?

Brenda Whiteside said...

Your post reminded me I'm sad about what's happened or happening to our language. I love words. I love the sound of them and the way the letters fit together. I've been known to use words not often heard...FDW always laughs at me, fondly of course. But there are words that say it so much better than the four-letter kind. We're reminded to use fewer adjectives, use words anyone anywhere will know, and, yes I believe, this type of writing's purpose is to dumb it down. I mourn the loss. Great post.

Alison Henderson said...

The advent of Twitter and texting haven't done our language any favors. I'm afraid I have to agree we're rapidly losing words and the ability to understand the ones that remain.

Andrea Downing said...

Jannine, such a good point; I hadn't thought of the pronunciation side and you've made me think. I've had 2 books on Audible, and a 3rd in the works, and the mispronunciations of words is mind-boggling--have had to correct quite a few, the latest being 'frisson.' I guess I take the use of words for granted and then am very surprised when people don't know them!

Andrea Downing said...

Margo, another good point. Maybe the flowery language was to extend the books since there was no TV? Keep the reader's interest for a longer period of time? I've written a couple of stories where my beta reader came back and said she had to look up a couple of words. I never know whether to take them out or leave them in and let people look them up. With an ereader it's so easy, too!

Andrea Downing said...

Ah, Brenda--a woman after my own heart. Keep up the good work-use those words!

Andrea Downing said...

Alison, yes, the shorthand we're forced to use precludes any kind of literary adventurousness in language. A growing and changing language shouldn't mean a more basic one.

RE Mullins said...

I love words. Alexa gives me a 'word for the day' every morning with my news briefing. Vocabulary also helped me get a partial English scholarship in college.

Andrea Downing said...

Wow, RE. If I get Alexa I'll have to get that feature working. I did have something on computer with a word for the day but they weren't very interesting. I can remember my father helping me study for my SAT vocabulary test--I just loved words and really enjoyed putting them in sentences, as one had to. I hope that portion of the test doesn't go the way that cursive writing seems to be going.

Diane Burton said...

Great post. The way we dumb down so much makes me think we're raising a generation of incompetents. Since I read most books on my iPad, I love the feature where I can get the definition of a word I'm unfamiliar with. I wouldn't take the time to find a dictionary and look it up. (That would take me out of the story too long.) I don't dumb down the words in my stories. We have a poet in our local writers' group. He's learned the value of word choice and passes that on to the rest of us.

Andrea Downing said...

Diane I'm so glad to hear that authors like yourself and others here are working to include better word usage in their books. It's certainly encouraging!

Leah St. James said...

I fear we're heading in the direction of losing words altogether and going back to using just symbols for written communication! If so, I'm in trouble. I can't decipher all the icon thingies on my phone or other "devices" as it is! Fascinating post, Andi.

Alicia Dean said...

Thought-provoking post. I believe we are losing words, but new ones are making their way in, and I'm not a fan. :) Loved seeing all those old articles and ads!