Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Word Power: Feature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Word Power: Feature

Article excerpt

Language can confuse or enlighten. Learning to use it imaginatively can enhance creativity, communication and understanding. Belinda Jack entreats all readers and writers to take note.

Reading is an activity that can easily be taken for granted - by the literate. Most of us are fortunate enough to have learned to read as children and it isn't until we come to teach someone else, often our own children, that we begin to consider the complexity of the process. But it's something we need to continue to think about, not "just do it".

As academics, teachers, students and citizens, we need to be wary of language and its sometimes insidious ways. We need to know when words are trying to persuade us of things that we would do best to not be swayed by. At the same time, as writers, we should always be conscious of the need to contribute towards a fundamentally important collaborative project - that of ensuring that the life blood of the language we use is as healthy as it can possibly be.

What I'm arguing for is something that goes a good deal further than the Plain English Campaign, which has been "fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979". It's a pressure group I admire and its battle against gobbledegook, jargon and misleading public information is an important one. What I'm advocating, however, is not simply clarity and precision, what used to be called "plain English". What I'm arguing for is an attentiveness to language when reading, and a self-consciousness when writing, that together foster a creative use of words.

It is only an imaginative use of language that allows for the emergence of new ideas and a new understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. We need to be linguistically inventive and ingenious if new insights are to be conceived of and articulated. And we also need to be aware of language that is no longer fit for purpose. It is incumbent on us to do something about words that have lost their vivacity and lounge lazily on the page.

C.S. Lewis inveighed against the practice of verbicide - or the killing of words - a concept that was first proposed in the middle of the 19th century. Of course, words can't be "killed" in a literal sense, but damage can certainly be done to them. For Lewis it meant hijacking words in order to use them to make evaluative judgements. His examples included "awesome" to mean "excellent". "Awesome", as far as Lewis was concerned, meant "inspiring awe or dread". As I was writing this piece, using Microsoft Word, I clicked on synonyms for "awesome". Up came "no suggestions". The word has been confused. Another recent example of verbicide would be "wicked" to mean "excellent", rather than "evil".

But I'm not altogether sympathetic towards Lewis' concerns, as one of the things that I love most about language is its instability: its capacity to change, reinvent itself and even, in the case of "wicked", to all but reverse its meaning. Any assaults on language that reduce it are unwelcome, but I think we can still use "wicked" to mean "evil", as well as "playfully mischievous" and "wonderful". The context would allow for any of these. I'm more concerned by another linguistic phenomenon that could also be deemed a form of verbicide, and that's cliche.

With due respect to the Plain English Campaign, I'd like to consider the use of its slogan, "fighting for crystal-clear communication". "Crystal clear" is a cliche and as such we read it as though it were a hieroglyph. The brain recognises the phrase as meaning simply "very clear". We no longer see and appreciate the extraordinariness of a solid mass of mineral that is transparent. It's miraculous that crystal exists in the world and it is no surprise that it is highly valued. I was on the north coast of Devon recently and had a wonderfully blowy walk along the beach in wellies. I was strolling along the water's edge enjoying the sense of disorientation that looking down at the froth running this way and that causes. …

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