Conor Sweetman

The Weight of Words

Conor Sweetman
The Weight of Words

Words infuse our lives. They bounce around in our heads. They form on the clean white sheet of paper as our hand scratches across its surface. Or they appear one letter at a time on a glowing screen as we tap them out. Words cry out to us from headlines, social media feeds, irate drivers, screaming toddlers, or songs from the latest pop idol or an all-time great like Louis Armstrong. 

We hear words. We read words. We write words, we speak words. We speak words in jest. We employ words in our work and tasks of the day. We speak words to make our case, to argue our points, to ask questions, and to give answers. We hear hurtful and shameful words, and we express our own in turn.

For these reasons and many others, words are important. Words are valuable. Words are a cherished resource to be cared for and cultivated. Words can capture the imagination. They can lift our spirits. They can encourage our souls and may warm our hearts. Words engage our intellects in their complexity and in their simplicity. They are enjoyable in their beauty and elegance.

Words are valuable, moving, sublime, imagination-capturers, and yet… Words can be abused, cheapened, depreciated, demeaned, devalued, watered-down. Like a forest that has been clear-cut or pristine wilderness that is turned into a strip mine, are words that have their value diminished.

Words are being abused and cheapened at an astounding rate, a rate that may even have surprised Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in her prophetic book of 2006 Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, a book in which she warned of such devaluation. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” “Spin” is a thing of the ancient past. What does it mean to call a wall “beautiful”? To say someone is “amazing”? What does it mean to describe something as “huge”? I believe that some of this language use reflects our reduced ability to speak with precision. It also reflects a desire to deliver a one-liner that packs a punch. We apply force to our imprecise words in order to make up for their inexactitude. This desire for our words to have intensity, for them to strike a chord, oftentimes leads to the improper use of words. For example, take what I see as our imprecise use of “impact” when we mean “affect” or “influence.” The proper meaning of the noun ‘im-pact’ involves negative effects. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

Impact, n.

a. The act of impinging; the striking of one body against another; collision. Chiefly in Dynamics, in reference to momentum.

Thus, ‘impact’ is completely appropriate for describing how our car received a side impact or when our wisdom teeth become impacted. The Oxford English Dictionary almost begrudgingly lists the following “now common” use as a possibility:

b. fig. Now commonly the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression. Esp. in phr. to make an impact (on).

This more recent use of the term has led to such abominations as ‘impactful’ (which is not in the OED) and a fundraising slogan I recently read: ‘Infinite Impacts.’ Yes, ‘impacts’ in the plural... as something positive. I have twinges down my spine (otherwise known as the “heebie-jeebies”) just repeating that slogan. But my point here is that describing something as ‘huge’ or ‘impactful’ or “ginormous” has quite a bit to do with our shrunken vocabulary and our inability to find the precise word out of the 2,000 words of the English language that the average educated person uses daily. As someone who reads an extensive amount of writing, I can attest to many squares words crammed into round spaces. I have experienced many instances, including in my own writing, when a word is off just enough to create dissonance and lost meaning. Many times we are simply careless and not careful custodians of our words.

Consider our need for extremes. We are unable merely to say that something is funny. Something must be “very funny,” “really funny,” ”the funniest thing ever,” “hilarious”—and on that last word, the middle syllable is accentuated (hi-LAR-i-ous). Why can’t we refer to that funny thing as “humorous” or “amusing” or “enlivening”? What about that excellent Austen word “diverting”? I would argue that, as with “impact,” we view these words as not being dynamic enough. If I referred to the essays in this magazine as “humorous” or “diverting,” most readers might accuse me of underrating them. But if I said they were “hilarious,” “extremely moving,” “powerful,” or even “impactful,” that accusation would likely not arise. Our words, like our politics and religious views, are at the extremes. We have lost the beauty of graded nuance in our speech.

McEntyre notes our loss of these words in the centre of the spectrum. She states, “As words fall into disuse, the experiences they articulate become less accessible. Think of the wide middle range of experience recalled in Jane Austen’s novels, with their rich vocabulary of nuance and fine distinction – words like agreeable, amiable, affable, genial, and kind – all sounding different effective tonalities. With the loss of such subtleties, and of careful grammatical distinctions…, we become more confined to the kinds of broad strokes that make us careless and so make us care less.”

She wrote this only eleven years ago, yet before the emoji and the smartphone, before the tidal wave of social media and all the applications, most of now communicate through. Her comments were prophetic, to say the least.

Now, being a member of the so-called Generation X (the generation of “whatever” and “reality bites”), I could continue with sarcastic cynicism about our abasement of language. But as those who believe in a redeemed reality where Edenic beauty may be restored, we live in hope of that restoration no matter our reality. We can cultivate our language to reflect that inevitable redemption. McEntyre suggests three strategies for caring and cultivating words that I will repeat and attempt to build upon.

Her first strategy for cultivating words is to read and read widely. The reason McEntyre says that reading widely helps us cultivate words is because doing so allows us “to deepen and sharpen our reading skills.” Here are three examples of rich, wide literature. The first is the opening paragraph of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.” ~ L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Notice how the brook just winds its way through the paragraph right to Rachel Lynde’s door and to Mrs. Lynde herself.

Or here is another example from one of my favourite authors, the British comedic author P.G. Wodehouse in his short story “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest.” Here Bertie Wooster opens the retelling of one of his escapades with his thoughts on Fate.

“I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare – or, if not, it’s some equally brainy bird – who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping. And what I’m driving at is that the man is perfectly right.”

I know, a bit of British humour, but classic Bertie Wooster, classic Wodehouse. If you don’t get it, I encourage you to take up McEntyre’s challenge and read widely.

Reading widely challenges us. We are introduced to new worlds and new words; our imaginations are captured, our spirits soar, our hearts burn within us.

McEntyre’s second strategy for caring for words is “to cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity.”

Listen to one another and don’t be afraid of correcting each other’s speech. Ask questions. McEntyre says to become a conversationalist and ask questions. Don’t allow conversations to die, but learn how to further conversations. Tell each other stories, the stories of our lives.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes:

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

I tried the story approach with my boys (8, 6, and 4) recently over breakfast. They aren’t quite robust conversationalists at this point in their lives; my wife and I usually get very little out of them when we ask questions about their day or what they are thinking. But when I asked Jonathan, our six year old, to tell me a story about why he had a band-aid on his finger, I heard a long tale about how mom had cut his fingernail too close, which then when he caught his finger in his backpack zipper caused his finger to bleed, and he was opening his backpack because…

Tell stories to one another. Ask questions. Create conversations.

The third strategy McEntyre gives for caring for words is to ‘Practice poesis – be makers and doers of the word.’ Enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and attempt to express that in words as best you can. Here, the often quoted Henry David Thoreau exemplifies the work of those who have written their own experiences of the world, particularly of creation.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” 

— Henry David Thoreau

Words have the power to captivate, to enamour, to enrich us. God has sanctified words through his own creation of and use of human language. He created the world through speech (Genesis 1). He has spoken to his people with words and inspired his prophets, priests, and kings to write history, poetry, proverb, and song. The Bible is God’s special revelation to us and was written and is read in human language. God’s speech to his people hallows language and presents us with greater impetus to cultivate words.

If we develop a habit of listening, these words cultivate in us a choice about comfort and convenience versus challenge and controversy. Where will we stand in those moments?

Will we cultivate words and be cultivated by them even in the midst of challenge and
controversy? The richest thing about words is the ‘infinite word: the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us, we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Word that was with God and was God became a human being and lived among God’s people…the most inspiring reason to cultivate words and to allow ourselves to be cultivated by the Word.

Words are a valuable resource that we cannot allow to be cheapened and abused. We must allow our imaginations to be captured by words. We must let our intellect to be engaged by the simplicity and complexity of words. Words should be relished. We can do so by reading widely, by listening and conversing to foster precision in our words, and by practicing poesis. Only then can we cultivate words, but more importantly, allow ourselves to be cultivated by the Word.

Written by Benjamin Reynolds