A Word Aptly Spoken
“When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn’t get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous. She finally persuaded ‘them’ that I write only for small children and was not a threat. In any dictatorship writers are among the first to be imprisoned, and vocabulary is quickly diminished and language deteriorates. Writers, if their vocabulary is not leashed, are quick to see injustice, and rouse the people to do something about it. We need words with which to think; kill words and we won’t be able to think and we’ll be easier to manipulate.”1
Upon reading this section of The Irrational Season, a chill went through me. Madeleine L’Engle lived through WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War, and September 11. She saw the devastating effects of tyranny, and the methods dictators used to cause them. We see it still in China, North Korea, parts of the Middle East, and many other places where there is little or no free speech. In such places, the oppressed do not know what is going on in the outside world, they are kept in the dark through force and propaganda.
Yet there is another sort of tyranny running rampant in the “free” West—the tyranny of disappearing words. We have heard the adage that talk is cheap, yet are still hurt or offended by various sleights, snubs, and insults. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but we all know that words spoken to us in vulnerable moments at times leave lasting scars. The Enemy of our souls bombards us with so many words each day that their meaning and weight is weakened. He uses advertisements and billboards; emails, printed leaflets, and newspapers; words flashed on television screens, iPads, iPods, and other electronic devices. We can now communicate quickly with anyone in any part of the world, but our whole world aches with the loss of community. Our Western society is losing the ability to articulate not only this loss, but to articulate at all.2 As an example, I often hear individuals they say that something has “impacted” them when they mean something has greatly affected them. I doubt, however, that they mean that something has collided into them, as the word “impact” actually means.
Culture-makers and lexicographers are not removing words from dictionaries—though they do add some fairly inane ones. Nevertheless, multitudes of words are disappearing from circulation and common vernacular as we cease to intuit definitions, replacing rich vocabulary with abecedarian language.3 Thus, the minds of the public are weakened. Words, however, are strong. They can augment or crush. Words are the death of us in the throes of an argument, yet they can be life and hope breathed into us in a genuine compliment or observation. If we understand the power of words we can share ideas and ideals, vision and Truth.
We can paint the canvas of the mind with vivid sunrises and sublime mountain ranges. Yet we can only do this well if we have the subtle colours provided us via a large vocabulary. Vocabulary is to the writer what the toolbox is the carpenter, or the palette is to the painter. Without the fine chisels or minute brushes, the artisan is unable to inlay the wood or paint delicate subtleties in his work. Without a vast wealth of words, the writer loses clarity and sharpness in his writing. Without a vast array of words, communication is fuzzy at best; muddled and vapid at worst. Even when the writer has the word bank needed to clearly communicate, his audience also needs a grasp of language. The reader must possess a desire to look up unfamiliar words in order to receive clarity and insight. He must, even before that, be willing to read.
We live in a culture where many are too lazy to even read a blog post all the way through if it is much longer than a few hundred words. A culture where magazine articles, sermons, soundbites, and news clips have been made as brief as possible to retain the viewer’s or listener’s attention. We are sliding into the place where we lose context because we must abridge ideas and thoughts in order to retain truncated attention spans. The glut of information and images thrown at us directly affects that length of attentiveness. We can no longer listen to a lecture three hours long, or spend the whole 4th of July listening to speeches, recitations, and singing.
We want more action, multi-tasking, and the rush of information, because we do not know what to do with silence.4 But the more information transmitted to us, the less meaningful it is. Sometimes an idea or a word is underlined best by minutes or hours of silence. Sometimes we must stop reading in order to look up an unfamiliar word that we may gain greater insight. The goal of reading is not simply to finish a book, it is to be led out of ignorance and into Truth.
We need words to be alive—because at one tangible point in history (God’s story), the Word Himself was made man and dwelt among us.5 He shrouded Himself in this fleshly body of death to bring us new life. Words matter vastly in reality. It is by words that God spoke all that we know through our senses into existence; spoke us into being. It is through the Word enfleshed that we are given the hope of stepping through the portal of death into the real world of the High Countries.6 It is that Word who is making us less and less shadow-men, and more and more into solid creatures. Words are life. The Word is Life. The Word is the substance of Hope. That final Word of God is the Prince of Peace. Let us not rush past that Truth into vague and insipid “communication” (e.g. electronic exchanges in place of face-to-face relationships) as usual. Let us listen to the Word when He says, “This is the way, walk in it.”7 Let us know the Word. Let us ask questions. Let us live dangerously. Let us live!
1. L’Engle, Madeleine The Irrational Season (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1977 )164
2. Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results.Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2012.
“Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary. Little surprise, then, that students began scoring lower on tests that probed knowledge and vocabulary size. The decline became alarming in the 1970s, as the federal report “A Nation at Risk” pointed out in 1983.”
3. Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results.Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2012.
“Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge.”
4. Pascal, Blaise Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc.) 39. “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”
6. See The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
Image courtesy of unsplash.com