April 5, 1998
Now that the academy awards are over, perhaps the Titanic can again rest in peace, at least literarily. (I understand that a company is preparing to give undersea tours of the real ship for those with too much disposable income. That’s show business.)
In the propaganda-saturated weeks leading up to Oscar night it was impossible not to come across a flippant headline or story that tried to play off the word Titanic. Director James Cameron justly deserved his accolades, but the price for his success is that his movie now looms larger in our minds than the ship itself. Even the 1958 British movie A Night To Remember—some say a superior telling of the Titanic story—managed to find its way into headlines in three publications.
The “night” in question? Oscar night, of course. How conveeeenient!
Thanks to mass media, instant communication and headline news shows, no idea or expression stays fresh for long. The best-before date for a witticism or bon mot is in the few moments after conception, before it becomes the property of every TV or radio talking head, tabloid headline writer or Internet serf. If familiarity breeds contempt, endless repetition of words breeds fatigue and boredom. Everything melds into the trite wallpaper of infotainment.
The problem is, the language doesn’t have a chance to grow and enrich itself. It’s mass-produced to serve the lowest common denominator because the lowest common denominator has purchasing and voting power. It used to be that war, religion and literature were the great engines that drove linguistic change, but the need to make a buck or promote a political cause precludes any concern for language.
How else can we explain why Kinko’s turned “office” into a verb. Victoria’s Women in Need Society apparently needed a replacement for the shopworn “empower” for its slogan. It came up with “Working Together to Enstrengthen Women.” (“Strengthen” wasn’t good enough?!)
In fact, for manufacturers, the sooner a phrase or word becomes a pre-packaged, easily repeatable cliché, the better. Clichés—the fast food of language. Just read and accept.
Who, besides the interest groups responsible, isn’t sick to death of “harassment,” “diversity” and “human rights”; nonsense words like “pro-active” “transgendered” and “heterosexist”; and the mindless clutter of Internet addresses.
With more than 450,000 words and another 200,000 or so technical terms, one would think the English language offered no end of variety, yet it seems our vocabulary is actually shrinking. Agents of political correctness want to strip the language of distinction and nuance. Another reason is the proliferation of technological jargon and malleable abstract nouns that mean everything in general and nothing in particular.
The irony is that we feel the need to invent drivel when there is a wealth of forgotten words that deserve to be rediscovered. As Charles Mackay writes in the introduction to his Lost Beauties of the English Language:
“Many learned and interesting works have been written on the origin, growth and present state of the English language, but… none has been written to point out the many losses which it has suffered, and which it is still suffering, from time, corruption and literary fashion.”
Mackay particularly laments the loss of Old English diminutives and past tenses of verbs. Here’s a sampling of our lost vocabulary, including some forgotten meanings:
• elf—to twist and tangle hair
• grythe—to tremble
• hore—past tense of hire, one who does for hire or pay that which should be done for lover and duty alone—now spelled “whore”
• flurch—a great abundance
• moe/mow—distort the mouth in scorn
• sloach—to drink heavily
• swikeful—deceitful, treacherous
• wersh/werish—insipid, unsavoury, tasteless
• yowf—to bark gruffly as opposed to “yelp,” which means to bark in a sharp, shrill manner.
Maybe we could start describing people as sexually swikeful. It would bring some badly needed sundriness to our stultified language. If Frederick Schlegel saw the werish state of our national language, he’d doubtless be driven to sloach.