If you were to receive from some mandatory power an order to the effect that for the rest of your natural life you would be confined to the use of one hundred English words to express all your wishes, all your needs, all your opinions, all your loves, all your hates, all your communications for whatever purpose between yourself and your friends, just what words would you choose?
Realizing how hard it is for the average person to write exactly what he wants to convey in a ten-word telegram, I have been liberal in suggesting one hundred words as a minimum, for although that is ten times the number of words in an average telegram, it affords a thousand times more power in saying just what you want to say, for it is by word combinations or words in juxtaposition that new ideas are born or new expressions coined for old ideas. The acquisition of words is like installing more pipes in a pipe organ. Greater combinations and a more extensive facility for beauty and harmony are afforded.
If, for instance, I use the word cheerful with waiter, I get a simple descriptive phrase, but if I use cheerful with pessimist, I create a highly forceful figure of speech, sardonic in tone, and recognizable as the rhetorical figure known as oxymoron (meaning sharp-dull), and applied to a combination of things that do not ordinarily go together. We see other examples in the phrases: cruel kindness, laborious idleness, and generous miser.
It is likewise by the putting of words together in unusual ways that we get a corruption of speech, as in slang. Radio humorists rely a great deal on this means for their Comic effects. Using the word dumb in its definite sense we describe a bit of human tragedy, but when the word is applied to someone in a good-natured way as an epithet, it becomes comic metaphor. It is often the case that because we have no more forceful words at our command, we fall into colorful slang for effect. There are things of the human spirit, however, that cannot be adequately expressed in such workaday language.
It is because we are unable to say some things for ourselves that we cherish our poets and word wizards who can say them for us. But there are potentialities in all of us for greater facility in saying what we want to say effectively, if not beautifully. In the more than half million words of our unabridged dictionaries we have potentialities for the beautiful couching of truth such as the world has never yet heard. The ingredients of the atomic bomb have been here in our earth since Eden, or at least since the catastrophic Flood, but it has taken modern science to conjure their dynamic synthesis into a powerful utility. Words, too, become dynamic for good or evil when conjured into recognizable patterns of thought.
Contrary to the popular notion held by many people, the acquiring of an adequate vocabulary is not merely a job of assembling a miscellaneous conglomeration of six- or eight-syllable words. The broadening of one's stock of common words is probably the most advantageous procedure.
' How much common words can mean in given situations ! When the deepest emotions demand utterance, when one wishes to summarize a beautiful experience in human relationships, or seeks for cheerful expressions of hope in the face of human tragedy, how mute he is—how empty. and tawdry seem the fancy words, the lovely phrases culled from books, or the glitter of a brocaded vocabulary. No, at such times men stammer for utterance. In their extremity they reach out for the simplest and most threadbare words, finding the comfort in them they would in old friends.
Someone has called attention to the world's farewells, and what a common pattern they follow. At railway stations, when loved ones are about to leave for extended separations from us, we do not indulge in eulogy or other forms of oratorical pose. Yet more is said in the commonplace things with which we fill up the moments of waiting than we care to admit. Finally, it is, "Good-by, Mother," "So long, Bill," "Good luck, pal," or "Be good, darling; we shall be praying for you." These are the phrases frequently on people's lips at times of separation. They are sealed with filling eyes, trembling lips, a nervous wave of the hand, or a tender embrace, and, oh, what a world of meaning there is in them.
Variety of Diction Adds Interest
The question arises: Shall we be articulate only on the emotional plane? Must we never rise above a commonplace diction? It is true that with only the hundred words I suggested at the outset it would be surprising how well we could get along in our daily relationships, for even the most voluble of us never use more than a few hundred different words each day. But a good cook does not always use the frying pan for his concoctions. Occasionally he finds use for the roaster, the broiler, the stewpot, or the baker. Neither should we preach, debate, orate, give sales talks, or engage in social converse all on the same level of diction.
Stuart Chase in The Tyranny of Words says that we are concrete in our thinking only as we use referent words that directly relate to objective things. He means such words as chair, pencil, sidewalk, and moon. There is little difficulty of being understood on that level. It is when we use such common words as that in transferred or figurative meanings that there may be confusion, unless we use them skillfully. When we say, "He's going to get the chair for his crime," we do not mean a love seat. When we are told that a certain lady pencils her eyebrows, we understand that the verb is being used outside of its office reference.
I had a rather severe lesson taught me some years ago on carefulness of speech. After three months' canvassing among the Flathead Indians in Montana, I made ready to return to my home in Butte. Feeling rather exuberant at the thought of going home, I contrived to compose - what I thought was a jubilant telegram to inform my parents of my homecoming. With only ten words at my disposal, I congratulated myself on my ingenuity, for this is what I wrote: KILL THE FATTED CALF. THE PRODIGAL RETURNS THURSDAY TRAIN FOURTEEN.
Our home was five miles from the city, and - the message was telephoned to my good stepmother. Not being able to hear too well over the phone, she got a badly garbled idea of what it was all about, and ran tearfully into the bedroom to tell my sick father, "Something terrible has happened. The train Harry was coming home on ran into a calf, and he was killed and they are bringing the body home tomorrow." Dressing hurriedly, she took the streetcar to town to find out the full message. Needless to say that the reception committee at the train next day greeted rue with quite as much chiding as affection. Even on the level of our workaday vocabulary we need to be careful that our nay means nay and our yea, verily.
But stepping up from the common referent word to collective ideas as expressed in our everyday speech, we find that the objectivity is not quite so clear. For instance, we talk glibly about "the white race" or "mankind" or "the courts," and what do we mean by each concept?
Can we be sure that those to whom we talk understand the terms the same as we do? The hazard is that they do not. For one "the white race" may mean the English-speaking world, for another it may mean all those who do not belong to the other races, and that is a vague concept. Yet others are puzzled as to whether we include those who are part white in the term. Obviously, then, such terms are only approximately exact and for definition need to be bolstered by other terms.
Let us step a bit higher in the scale and think of the labels we use for abstract concepts. We talk easily about freedom, but what do we mean? We stoutly contend for religious liberty and yet show that we are not clear about the term at all times, for we indulge the spirit of intolerance so often toward each other. We likewise bandy about words like truth and individualism and love, for which we have no objective referents, save such aspects of them as are covered in general by these broad terms. We talk about truth sometimes as though all that it connotes were comprehended in the mere word itself. We talk about love as though it could be bounded as a country is bounded, showing its latitude and longitude. We are accountable for these tools of thought and how we use them.
My father for many years was foreman of a copper mine in British Columbia. The mine had an up-to-date carpenter shop, furnished with every conceivable kind of tool for the demands of the surface workings and of the timbering projects in the mine workings. When any man came looking for work as a carpenter, and there was need for such a workman, father would take the applicant to the carpenter shop and give him a little oral examination on the tools, for he was a master carpenter himself. It didn't take him long to find out whether the man seeking employment was bluffing, or whether he really knew his tools. He reasoned that any man pretending to be an artisan should know the tools of his trade. Likewise, any person whose work brings him into contact with the public should know the tools of language, especially if the success of his efforts depends on persuasion or argument, as in the case of the salesman or preacher or teacher.
Vocabulary as Index to Success
In an exhaustive investigation made not many years ago by one of our national educators, repeated and careful tests showed that the greatest stock of words was owned by the biggest executives of America. The magnates of industry, the great merchantmen, all scored higher averages than even college professors. - It was found, too, that the measured English vocabulary of these executives correlated with their salaries. Not only in the executive field was this true, but also in such professions as medicine and law it was found that the higher men ranked in these fields of public service, the greater was their vocabulary command. The conclusion was that there was a definite relationship between a good stockpile of words and success.
There are those who shout for the simpler words, and that is good as far as it goes. We need have no quarrel with those who champion a simple diction. Bunyan did wonders with a vocabulary that registered 65 per cent in one-syllable words. "And then he caught him and slew him and cut off his head" is a typical Bunyan sentence. But let us not condemn the man who can use effectively a loftier and more flexible level of diction. All movement in music is not staccato. A spondee movement in prose would be most soporific. We like speakers who use dactylic, iambic, anapestic, and trochaic words with equal ease. Those who decry the use of the beautiful words Latin and Greek has furnished us, insisting on Anglo-Saxon as the only legitimate source of expression, are like the person who avers the only food man needs is corn pone and blackstrap molasses. He cries, "Fie, fie," to anyone whose gastronomic desire envisions waffles and Vermont maple sirup.
Admittedly a melody can be played on the piano with one finger, but there are those whose souls respond to the architectural and tonal intricacies of a Bach fugue. Shall we proscribe the literary Bachs and Mozarts, and reduce our language to the level of the market place? The whole question reduces itself to the simple recognition that there are at least five levels of speech : the literary, the formal, the general colloquial, the popular, and the vulgar. No cultured person uses the latter, but we all at some time or other use the remaining four, depending on the time and the occasion. We do not use the literary level when we ask our neighbor at the table to pass the dish, of sauerkraut. Nor do we use baseball vernacular, which is an example of the popular level, when we preach a sermon. A public prayer calls for speech on a formal level. Even the freshmen in a certain college were shocked one time when in the devotional prayer at chapeltime a seasoned worker addressed Heaven thus: "Oh, Lord, you know how everything has gone haywire in this old world." Not even those good people carrying the torch for a man-in-the-street vocabulary could defend such bad taste as that.
The third angel's message is couched in a colorful concrete language. We must learn its terms not only in the patterned phrases of accepted usage in denominational circles, but we must also seek new ways to make it vivid and appealing without descending to the level of the circus or carnival. To one worker whose eloquence is forceful without being ornate, his friends say: "We like the way you put things." Should we not all be verbal shot-putters whose words hit their mark?
Pitt and Lord Chatham of England both read the dictionary twice through, word by word. It paid in their marvelous oratory in the English Parliament. Lincoln often sat in the twilight reading the dictionary until the embers in the fireplace burned low. Men who write classics like the Gettysburg Address usually have that kind of background. Fanny Hurst's stories bring as high as $2,000 each from popular magazines because of her painstaking care with words. Doesn't the vital message we represent to the world deserve as faithful workmanship in the tools of expression as these?
Whether we improve in this matter of vocabulary command or not depends chiefly on our attitude. We may be like Job who "opened . . . his mouth, and cursed his day," or like Jesus who "opened His mouth, and taught them saying, Blessed." If we emulate the Saviour in our careful choice of words, that which was recorded of another by one of our poets may be true of us:
"The stern were mild when thou went by;
The flippant put himself to school and heard thee;
The arrant fool was silent and he knew not why."