Saturday, April 10, 2010

Words and the Work

The work of mission, reaching into yourself and discovering a truth you care enough about to put the rest of your life into bringing it to realization in the public square, is a wonderful way to live--the only way for many of us to live--and using words well in the support of your work, is crucial.

This essay from the Public Discourse is about using words well.

An excerpt.

“Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s new book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, is a warning against industrialized language prevalent in contemporary America, where words “come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed.” To combat this, she advocates a strenuous connoisseurship that insists on “useable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.”

“While the author’s Christian commitment is clear throughout—Caring for Words grew out of her 2004 Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary—the book is focused on the “horizontal” dimension of language, on its primary role as man’s chief social tool. As she puts it, “caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words.” The state of English therefore concerns everyone—not just poets and English teachers like herself.

“McEntrye forthrightly identifies the villains: biased journalists and cynical advertisers, entertainers, and politicians. These usual suspects, she says, are the titans of the word industry who have inundated us with cheap language designed not to tell the truth, but to manipulate, evade, or sell. Public language is thus (to adopt McEntyre’s preferred, ecological metaphor) polluted and depleted by “thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bites, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather” which seep malignantly into ordinary speech and thought.

“Polluted and depleted language is obviously an inadequate medium for proper public debate. McEntyre agrees with George Orwell that last use of language leads to foolish thoughts, including foolish thoughts about urgent questions of the common good. When we lose the “subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.”

“McEntyre worries that the prevalence of bad English not only deadens our sensitivity to truth and falsehood but also spoils our taste for language as language, thereby denying us a pleasure “akin to the pleasures of music.” She wants us to be sensitive to euphony, layered meaning and double reference, allusion, ambiguity, and association, to relish words that are “not just meaning or reporting or chronicling or marching in syntactic formation, but performing themselves, sounding, echoing….”