LOSING THE WEIGHT OF WORDS

This past 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. traininsnowwy While the illustration is soon to be framed and find 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.

As 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 839855_20247821a 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,’ photo-3while 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.” It’s a question of fashion in the use of words. 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.

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?

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16 responses to “LOSING THE WEIGHT OF WORDS

  1. Andi, once again you pose an interesting question: Are we losing words? We speak and write a living language. It evolves. We add words, accepted meanings change and yes some words fall into disuse. We’ve got scads of examples! Growing up if someone referred to their cell, you knew they were in jail. Who would ever have imagined a wireless telephone you carried in your pocket or purse? Back then if you were ‘down with’ something, you probably had the flu. This evolution in language comes into sharp focus for the intrepid author who presumes to write in another era, say the nineteenth century. I got an idea for a short novel series when I discovered that the Pinkerton Agency had a competitor. I stumbled on a book based on the reminiscences of General David J. Cook, Superintendent of the Rocky Mountain Detective Association. The book, first published in 1882, is a compilation of case reports on criminal investigations conducted by the association. Needless to say the language in the reports is pure nineteenth century. I found the terminology so amusing I started building a little glossary. I thought I might use a term here and there to give my stories a ring of authenticity. I recognize there is a risk in that when it comes to dumbing down language for the modern reader, but who can resist something as tempting as: Wending his way thitherward? Can you picture a romance heroine who inspired cupidity? Used sparingly, I see opportunities to recapture rascality and jollification!

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    • Aha! Do I catch a hint of a Tim McGraw song in there, Paul? What a great find you made there with that detective book. Interesting, isn’t it, that we can so readily read Dickens & Austen and their ilk yet dare we write in any way, shape or form close to their style or using their vocabulary, the average reader would just…depart? Pull up stakes? Go forth?

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  2. Love this stuff! I am a self-confessed slang-o-holic and maintain an interactive slang dictionary with over 40,000 entries. My last two young adult historical novels contained a lot of period slang, so my publisher, Texas Tech University Press, asked me to provide a glossary, which I lovingly did. With slang, it’s sometimes difficult to find the definition in standard dictionaries and I defy any self-respecting teen to consult the Oxford English Dictionary.

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    • Gosh, Randall, you should have the slang dictionary published. Now I know to whom to go for 19th C slang! My ex walked off with the complete OED but I have the Concise. Then again, I’m not a teen…

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  3. I have a small file of nineteenth century Western words or slang terms I’ve compiled over the years. My reasons for doing so are two-fold. One, for future usage within a story. Two, because I love the flowery text. If I read letters from soldiers in the Civil War and both Great Wars (as if any war could be great), I’m romanced by the use of language in that era. Are we dumming down the language. I say yes. Most definitely. Like most everyone, my comprehension vocabulary far exceeds my spoken and, sadly, my written vocabulary. I once used the word “conflagration” in a manuscript, and my agent complained she had to look up the word. I was shocked. She hinted I should change it and I balked. Personally, I enjoy learning. When I come across a new-to-me word or see one used in an uncustomary way, I smile. I’m learning something–and at nearly 65, learning helps maintain that mental alertness.

    Great post, Andi. Loved it.

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    • Vonnie, let me first tell you, you may be interested in owning a copy of Dictionary of the American West by Win Blevins. I loved just reading it, never mind referring to it. I am completely in agreement with everything you’ve said here. I,too, have had an editor and competition judges ‘complain’ they had to look up a word while i, myself, love a richly textured book that challenges me. There don’t seem to be too many of those around these days, sadly. It may be a bit like “homework” as one blogger complained, but isn’t all of life a learning experience? Goodness, Lord help us if we stop learning and just carry on as if we knew everything there was to know!

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      • Oh my, think how boring life would be if we knew it all! Calvin and I both consider it a good day when we learn something new. Thanks for the tip on the book. I’m off to order it now. Have a great day, Andi, and hope your eye is healing.

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      • Thanks for your good wishes, Vonnie, and for your excellent input to the discussion. I’m looking forward to sitting down with yoU and Calvin again for a nice long chat!

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  4. Andi – you raised a valid question. Randi’s comment was a great one. Imagine a kid hightailing it to a dictionary out of curiosity. I, too, love the old language. It’s one of the things about the Downton Abbey series that draws me in – – the language is so “kind.” However, if I may, I’d like to raise another question: Is Allan’s Anti-Fat Remedy available at Wal-Mart? My corpulence problem looms, you see.

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  5. Andrea, I think words such as corpulence and conflagration have gone the way of lace-up corsets, petticoats, and long cumbersome dresses, and I for one would not mourn them, had I ever had to wear the horrid things, nor those inflated words, had I ever had to use them. I love my jeans and shirts and I love a simple language woven into a wonderful tale.

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    • Interesting, Eunie! I fear I definitely mourn the loss of the use of certain words; I think our language is richer for them, although perhaps at times more demanding and obscure to the reader. There is definitely a certain pleasure in flowing through a book without having to research words, but on the other hand, I find a certain pleasure in finding the meaning of words I hadn’t come across previously. I have to say that, as someone who never wears heels and has almost a fetish for elastic waistbands and loose-fitting clothing, I don’t personally relate my taste in dress to my desire for vocabulary! I’m totally with you on the jeans and shirts front! 🙂

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  6. What a great post, Andi, and the comments are just as interesting! I am saddened to think that we are losing words, at an albeit short rate of speed. Funny that when new words are added to the dictionary they seem/are interestingly obtuse? I like to consider myself a word fanatic. I have always loved them and when I see a word I don’t know its meaning, I will rush to my Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary to look it up. Sometimes I get funny looks from people when I spout “long” words, too…

    Once in the late 80s when I wrote one of my feature articles for a community newspaper, I decided to slip in a couple of adjectives. Wouldn’t you know my editor called me the next day, said he wanted to see me. Well, I received the proverbial slap on the hands and was told to leave adjectives out of my stories. I was chagrined, did what I was told for the remaining feature articles I wrote. I’ve always wondered, though, when and why journalistic writing turned from its flowery beginnings to the now-stated “Just the facts, ma’am.” I believe many think this should apply to other writing, as well.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Alice. I sometimes wonder if we are returning to the days of yellow journalism with emotive adjectives, but in television newscasts. if one listens to the features on my local channel, they’re almost of the ‘dark and stormy night’ variety. I keep getting told by someone with whom I’ve been dealing that she loves speaking with me because I use ‘long’ words. Well, what are the words? Pedantic and dither to name two. Different people’s vocabularies never cease to amaze me!

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  7. Wonderful post, Andi. My own opinion is that we’re not running out of words, but we are running out of time and patience. That wonderful prose you so adeptly quoted came out of a time when people needed to fill it…on long train trips across the country, evenings around the campfire, and from the days before we could flick a switch or push a button and have entertainment at our fingertips. We 4 get 2 slow down and n-joy the journey.

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    • I think that is definitely part of it, Nancy. I came upon my school reading list a few weeks back and was amazed, and upset, to see how many of those books are no longer discussed & most likely not read by students now. They do read classics, some of them, but not to the extent that they were previously studied. Makes me wonder what the next generation will be reading.

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