Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Word Power!

The English language is always evolving. Each year, the Oxford Dictionary publishers pick a “word of the year”--a new word they believe reflects a thematic idea for the year. This year’s choice, recently announced, is the clunky, “unfriend”. Facebook users know exactly what this means: to remove someone as a friend on a social networking site. What is interesting about that word is the prefix “un” is usually used with adjectives (unacceptable, unappealing) and although there are certainly some “un” verbs (unpack, unburden), the word “friend” is not used as a verb, so to use “unfriend” as a verb is highly unusual, and likely what intrigued Oxford dictionary folks enough to pick it.

Narrowly missing out on the 2009 word of the year were a variety of other new words or phrases, among them:

• “Intexticated” (distracted because one is texting on a cell phone while driving a car—as in “Friends don’t let friend drive intexticated!”)

• “funemployed” (taking advantage of being laid off from work by having fun)

• “zombie bank” ( a bank which is virtually bankrupt but kept afloat through government bailouts)

• “tramp stamp” (a tattoo on the lower back)

Merriam-Webster also publishes a word of the year. If one goes back over the last 5 or so years, one can track major themes for those years. For example, in 2005 the word of the year was “integrity”, chosen that year because it was the most looked up word in Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary. Ironic, isn’t it, that as steroids rocked baseball, as ethical scandals in Congress and in the corporate world were rampant, that people had to look up the “integrity” to see what it meant!

Similarly, in 2006, the word of the year was “Truthiness”, which means believing what you want to believe in your gut, rather than what is known to be true. Again, I find it telling we’ve created a word that really means “my opinion”, and cloaked opinion with the authority derived from the base word “Truth”. Truth, at its deepest level, means “that which is” rather than “that which I perceive” but it should be no surprise we confuse the two given the influence of relativism.

In 2007, Merriam’s word of the year was “wOOt”, expressing joy, whereas in 2008 the word was, not surprisingly, “bailout”, reflecting the efforts of government to rescue many companies from financial distress.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Words are alive; cut them and they bleed”. Using exactly the right word for a paper, invoking a clever turn of phrase in conversation or using a choice sarcastic word to cut someone down to size is immensely satisfying. Words are living things which have the power to create and inspire and the power to destroy. In a culture that watches too much TV, which Alec Baldwin in the Hulu commercial reminds us turns our brains into a cottage cheese-like gelatinous mush, let us re-dedicate ourselves to reading and writing so that we may be able to create and appreciate excellent prose.

Let me leave you with a brief example of spectacular writing from one of the all time great essayists, John Henry Newman. Newman is arguing against the enlightenment assumption that being well educated makes one morally virtuous. Rather than simply saying “No, because the temptation to sin is part of the human condition, regardless of how well educated one is” he writes:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. (John Henry Newman, “The Idea of a University”).

Now that is writing! May we all aspire to use words as well as Newman did. Work hard in your English classes!

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