Friday, June 11, 2010


I deal in words. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by their power, their idealism, and, often, their cruelty. I know more English words than the average English-speaker (French words too, but that’s another story), and I infuriate friends by pointing their grammatical errors and inappropriate use of a noun, verb or adjective. In other words, I’m a word snob, guilty of having had a love-hate relationship with expressions, vocabulary and language. According to Confucius, words are the voice of the heart. Henry Adams called them “slippery,” and Josh Billings advised that “there’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.” All these thoughts are correct and yet fall short. 

Why then, is it so hard to communicate? How does it occur that what I say is routinely misinterpreted, and what I hear is often not what the other person has said? Do I know too many words or too few?  Perhaps it’s a mistake to believe what Mark Twain once said, that “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Words, of course, can be amusing too, particularly when misused. I love spoonerisms (kneak wees [weak knees], cuss and kiddle [kiss and cuddle]), and malapropisms (passing like sheeps in the night, the use of brunt force, a man of great statue.)

But the truth is, I think I’ve lost my trust in words. Like statistics, they’re made to be manipulated.  Listen to an ad on the radio or television. The object is to make you react to something you really have little interest in. Print ads work the same way, trying to elicit your curiosity or, at the very least, spur a reaction.  For me, the game lies in figuring out how to parse them: what word is designed to move me, to attract or, on occasion, to repulse. What skills do writers of any stripe employ to direct my feelings? How successful are they?

Recently, a large arms manufacturer took out a full-page ad in my local paper to tell me how a competing company’s product was both inferior and over-budget, while  misrepresenting its ability to do what it was purported to do, i.e., kill a lot of people from a great distance. It was a really well-written piece of propaganda. I read it twice, felt a small degree of outrage over the wasteful use of my tax dollars. I should write to my congressman!  Then rational thought took over and I turned the page.

Ha!  Nipped it in the butt!

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