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The wonderful, wondrous world of words

By | September 17, 2008 | Opinion

WHY DON’T PEOPLE TAKE MORE PRIDE IN THEIR language?

Most of today’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 it’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 “erudite” instead of “educated.” That, however, would have been pretentious.

Contrary to what Roget’s Thesaurus would have you believe, synonyms don’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, “The Wondrous Cross,” 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.
It’s wonderful,
So wonderful.

First, the new chorus demonstrates that all modern worship music is written from various combinations of the words “wonderful,” “Jesus,” “holy” and “light.” But it is also an example of the problem of forced synonyms. “Wondrous” and “wonderful” are not exactly the same, but they are here shackled together as if they are the same.

“Wondrous,” according to my old friends Merriam and Webster, means, “that which is to be marveled at,” while “wonderful” means “exciting” or “unusually good.”

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 couldn’t play a hymn called “Come Ye Disconsolate” because nobody would know what “disconsolate” meant.

That hymn also contained such stumbling blocks as “languish,” “fervently” and “penitent.” 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. (Don’t even get me started on “disinterested” versus “uninterested.”) 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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4 Responses to The wonderful, wondrous world of words

  1. Jonathan Lane says:

    I completely agree! Words ARE beautiful and your “William Shatner-esque pauses” are very much warranted. This is a well written opinion piece, great job!

  2. Jonathan Lane says:

    I completely agree! Words ARE beautiful and your “William Shatner-esque pauses” are very much warranted. This is a well written opinion piece, great job!

  3. Charles W. Frank, "Chip" says:

    Kudos!!!

    Notes:
    I think you posted the “parcel” objection last semester, or two semesters ago.

    Any way you split hairs like this, someone’s going to be offended, for some odd reason. One of my professors said recently, something to the effect: ‘Properly spoken language used to be a sign of class and standing, but no longer.’ I disagree with this. I find command of language of higher class standing.

    In my own observations: many under-educated people out there are turned-off by command of language. Some in jealousy, some because they do perceive the higher class standing. I have a habit of bending words, or using them in unusual context to bring context to things … and I get the impression that people just don’t like it, or think I’m thumbing my nose at them for the way I speak.

    I don’t get it … why is society slowly starting to lean towards lowest-common-denominator, rather than holding-to higher standards? Besides … college is “higher education,” right?

  4. Charles W. Frank, "Chip" says:

    Kudos!!!

    Notes:
    I think you posted the “parcel” objection last semester, or two semesters ago.

    Any way you split hairs like this, someone’s going to be offended, for some odd reason. One of my professors said recently, something to the effect: ‘Properly spoken language used to be a sign of class and standing, but no longer.’ I disagree with this. I find command of language of higher class standing.

    In my own observations: many under-educated people out there are turned-off by command of language. Some in jealousy, some because they do perceive the higher class standing. I have a habit of bending words, or using them in unusual context to bring context to things … and I get the impression that people just don’t like it, or think I’m thumbing my nose at them for the way I speak.

    I don’t get it … why is society slowly starting to lean towards lowest-common-denominator, rather than holding-to higher standards? Besides … college is “higher education,” right?

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