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April 23, 2004

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A Word on Words
Neeman A Sobhan

This article is dedicated to two people. One, a nephew-in-law of mine who complained, 'Auntie, you use too many difficult words in your column', and an older relative who said, 'My dear, sometimes, I break my jaw pronouncing some of the words you use.' This piece is not meant to be either in the vein of an apology nor a defensive rebuttal, but is an invitation to examine the attitudes we display when faced with what we term as a 'difficult' word.

I am going to start off with what I wrote recently to a reader whose email mentioned my use of 'hard words'. To him I said: "Perhaps the reason you find some words in my column hard may be due to your unfamiliarity with those words, and not because the words are in themselves hard. A strange new word seems difficult and unapproachable at first encounter because you haven't made friends with it yet. But, if you looked at the word as a potential friend, someone new you learned to know, you might find that it would open your heart and mind to more subtle or more precise or more colourful ways of expressing a thought, expounding an idea or describing an image; you'd see deeper nuances, greater richness and endless possibilities in the English language. Instead, most people look at an unfamiliar word not just as an unnecessary hurdle but actually a personal affront to their current level of knowledge, making them feel hostile toward the word because it seems to underline some lacking on their part. Stumbling over the word amounts to an insult inflicted on them by the user who must surely be a pretentious show-off gleefully rubbing his hands saying 'Ha! Gotcha, you didn't know that word did you?'"

We all have a built-in psychological resistance to words that are foreign to the cosy vocabulary we have acquired over the years. Anything beyond its range is considered 'out of syllabus' and irritates us as if it were a piece of flint in the eye. Dr. Wilfred Funk, who wrote the monthly feature 'It Pays to Increase Your Word Power' for the Reader's Digest once said that by the time we are 25 years old our vocabulary is 95 percent complete as far as we are concerned. Only 5 percent more will be added during the remaining portion of our lives, unless we consciously choose to improve or enlarge it.

The active vocabulary of the average adult stops growing after passing out of school or college, unless of course he is a voracious reader, is in a language-related profession, or has a natural aptitude for absorbing new words into his repertoire. But we must make a distinction here: these days when people add new words to their vocabulary, they readily absorb slang, buzz-words, scientific-technical terminology, the vocabulary of socio-economic development and political news commentary jargon but look down on literary sounding words.

After leaving the portals of education and upon entering life, very seldom do people take down the dictionary to look-up an unfamiliar word encountered during the course of the day's reading. Faced with an alien word, (which could be ' 'inveigh' and 'inveigle' for some, or 'abjure' and 'adjure' for another) many adults respond first by sniffing suspiciously around it to guess its meaning, then ignore it and choose to simply ride over it irritably as if it were an uncalled for speed bump maliciously designed to slow down the pace of reading. Most rant and rail and inveigh against the writer: so this Know-All thinks he is trying to teach me something, huh? Rarely does a reader allow his pride to crumble long enough to look up the word because that would give the writer an undue edge over the reader, make him look superior; whereas consulting the dictionary is perceived by the reader as being akin to admitting defeat and acknowledging not knowing something...Oh! My God! (And we all know that to say, 'I don't know' is worse than saying 'I am sorry.')

Thus the dictionary is one of the least used books in a home, and considered a nerdish thing. Why the hell should we have to stoop to using it, when the inconsiderate writer, instead, could just use a more everyday word for whatever he wants to communicate? No, the dictionary is only the last resort used only on the sly to confirm that we are correct about what we know, to soothe the nagging feeling that a word, say 'disabuse', that we just used in conversation does mean what we thought it meant (which is to stop abusing something, isn't it?). Time for the dictionary. Ooops! It means 'to free from error or fallacy.' Stupid word! Well, while we are at it, lets see what the hell that pompous ass meant when he said 'mordancy of insight'? And since we are visiting the dictionary, might as well check out the spelling of that word we wrote as 'langourous' or did we write 'langorous' orů oh! My God is that how it's written: 'l-a-n-g-u-o-r-o-u-s'? Stupid word!

No, we simply cannot disabuse ourselves of our deep-seated belief that if we don't know the new word, it is a useless word, which should be ignored, instead of being claimed as a weapon in our armoury of thought; might I even say, a particularly incisive and mordant weapon of insightful speech or writing?

Okay, time for a quotation break, but don't go away. Beecher said: 'Words are the pegs to hang ideas on'; Judd takes this to an even more fundamental level: 'Words are the instruments that make thought possible.' We think with words, and the richer, more varied our vocabulary, the more discriminating, selective and clear will be our thinking, because words lead to concepts, which are the building blocks of reasoning. Complex sounding words are at our service to make language more precise and meaning more explicit, not to obfuscate and rub people the wrong way. (By the way, I used 'obfuscate' because I'm almost at the end of the 1200 word limit for my column and need to be economical, and what single word can so well illustrate the meaning of making something obscure, dark and confusing than obfuscate? I hope my target reader who sent me the email will not think that I'm trying to trick and inveigle him into an acquaintanceship with a new word-friend?)

But as I sign off, let me assure him as well as those of my readers who would want me to abjure, renounce and give up the use of 'hard' words, that good prose is never deliberately obscure and does not use long or difficult words just to preen and impress. A 'hard' word is used because it is the most appropriate one, containing within itself what would take us an entire sentence to explain. A simpler word might just be too simplistic, lacking the finer shades of meaning needed. But all this, the range, power and relevance of vocabulary, deserves a whole article, so more another time. Meanwhile, if you will excuse me, I'll just go and re-check the meaning of 'adjure' in my much used and battered dictionary!

Sobhan10@hotmail.com
(The writer's book of collected columns 'An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome' is available at Etcetera and at OMNI BOOK's new location: House 4G, Rd.104, Gulshan Dhaka.)

 

 

 
         

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