The wonderful, wondrous world of words
WHY DONâ€™T PEOPLE TAKE MORE PRIDE IN THEIR language?
Most of todayâ€™s English, especially spoken English, is the verbal equivalent of a pair of duct-taped Birkenstocks: Serviceable and functional, but not stylish.
Maybe people think itâ€™s pretentious to use unusual words. It certainly can be if such words are used only to make the speaker look educated.
Note that I could have used â€œeruditeâ€ instead of â€œeducated.â€ That, however, would have been pretentious.
Contrary to what Rogetâ€™s Thesaurus would have you believe, synonyms donâ€™t always mean exactly the same thing. There are shades of meaning that become eroded when words are forced to be exact synonyms.
To illustrate: A few years ago, my church changed from singing the old hymns to singing new Christian worship music. As part of this transition, the new music director would rearrange the old hymns, sometimes adding verses or a bridge. One in particular, â€œThe Wondrous Cross,â€ stuck with me. The original first verse of the hymn goes thusly:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
His addition of a chorus went something like this:
Oh, the wonderful cross,
The wonderful cross.
First, the new chorus demonstrates that all modern worship music is written from various combinations of the words â€œwonderful,â€ â€œJesus,â€ â€œholyâ€ and â€œlight.â€ But it is also an example of the problem of forced synonyms. â€œWondrousâ€ and â€œwonderfulâ€ are not exactly the same, but they are here shackled together as if they are the same.
â€œWondrous,â€ according to my old friends Merriam and Webster, means, â€œthat which is to be marveled at,â€ while â€œwonderfulâ€ means â€œexcitingâ€ or â€œunusually good.â€
No doubt Jesus was greatly honored that his crucifixion had gone from occurring on a cross to be marveled at to a cross that was unusually good. The wood was of extra-fine quality, perhaps.
Of course, this was the same church that told me, when I was the pianist, that I couldnâ€™t play a hymn called â€œCome Ye Disconsolateâ€ because nobody would know what â€œdisconsolateâ€ meant.
That hymn also contained such stumbling blocks as â€œlanguish,â€ â€œferventlyâ€ and â€œpenitent.â€ To me, these words sparkle with vivacity. But rather than present material that challenged the congregation, this church wanted material that catered to a lower level of comprehension.
Such lowest-common-denominator thinking is widespread. (Donâ€™t even get me started on â€œdisinterestedâ€ versus â€œuninterested.â€) I find it disheartening. Words are beautiful, complex creations that can elicit precise images. My friends are used to William Shatner-esque pauses in my speech as I hunt for just the word I want. It takes me a bit longer to get my message across, but that message is more accurate than it would have been otherwise.
If a picture is worth a thousand carefully chosen words, twice as many plough-horse words are required to convey the same meaning.
Heather Billings is a senior at Fresno State majoring in mass communication and journalism with emphases in print journalism and digital media.
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