The Mystery of Words/Part 2/Chapter 4

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The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part II, Chapter IV


Practical References

Up to this point, the subject has been treated with no practical reference to any special tongue. Now it may be well to taper the discourse to the English language in order to determine what helpful suggestions, if any, may be had from the foregoing. Further, it may be possible in the following, with its brief citations and casual examples, to throw some light on the wholesome usage of words by taking a glance at their meanings through much mutation and some order.

What constitutes the purity of our own or of any other tongue, is a matter of much diversity of opinion. Even those who agree on what makes for the purity of a language often disagree as to its value. So far as English is concerned, if the introduction of foreign words tends to contaminate it, then its purity must be limited to the paradoxical sense of its pure contamination.

The English-speaking people, as every other more or less, has found it interesting and convenient to borrow from abroad. Intellectual and material resources always have been exchanged with profit. Each importation fetches with it its own vocabulary. It is economical to accept one with the other. At all times this has been the rule of practice. The borrowing of abstract conceptions has proceeded after the same fashion. In brief, that which has been found worthy in any epoch by any people has been appropriated for the benefit of mankind at all succeeding times.

Moreover, the practice of borrowing words is governed by their usefulness rather than by pride in their kinship. That is common sense. A farmer needing a field-harrow will not borrow the model of a garden-rake. The same applies to all classes of words whether artistic, scientific, and so forth.

Language reflects the intellectual activities of the race; and therefore all the different tongues are ever striving with their natural limitations for greater freedom. The only question arising from the appropriation of foreign words, is the manner of the process. This, it goes without saying, should be intelligent, therefore, consistent and conservative. Too often the idea of the purity of a tongue is purely a matter of prejudice. A foreign word that is needed—one that is fit—one that adds to the powers, the subtleties of expression, to the readiness of understanding, to the utility, or to the beauty of a language, should be introduced into that language without affectation or reserve.

One disadvantage of adopting foreign words is owing to the absence of the time-factor. Words of the best kind are old enough to have acquired associations in the thought of the folk using them. Some attrition seems necessary to give a word its true fitness. It must be measured by standards, polished by use, and shaped by the genius of the tongue which adopts it in order that it may fulfill its highest destiny. This is no reason why foreign words should be rejected; but it is a good reason why they should be scrutinized, and accepted with judicious conservatism, and then used with a delicate sense of propriety. Rampant neologism has spread disgust so widely that a disapproving sensitiveness has appeared toward new words. Thus many of them suggest pretense, exaggeration, and superfluity with very little reason. To some fairly discreet minds, they create distrust of the laws of analogy and grammar.

A word-stimulus becomes weak, losing its potency to arouse an image. The invention of a new word, or the adoption of a foreign term to take its place, not only is desirable but more or less imperative. New signs also are needed for new ideas, if a language is to continue its development; to this rational purpose new words not only are introduced, but new meanings are given to old words. In fine, this process is continuous in all tongues; it is a natural order of evolution; but the evolution is paralleled by disorderly devolution. If the two processes were equal there could be no linguistic progress. Sometimes the one is stronger, sometimes the other; the broad view, however, gives us faith in the orderly process of evolution.

With due regard for the need of “new blood,” conservatism should moderate the force and limit the scope of innovation. For it is by virtue of conservatism that continuity is maintained between the earlier and the later forms of expression, especially be tween the older and the newer meanings of words. This applies not only to words but to forms of construction and rules of grammar: all must be modified with etxreme caution, else tradition, intellectual and historic resource, may be harmed.

The gist of the purity of a tongue lies not so much in the restriction of foreign words, or in the reservation with which new meanings are given to old words, but rather more in the retention of clearness and propriety in the use of words already in the service of the tongue. The process is less simple than it seems, since it includes not only a judicious reserve toward the new, but an active elimination of the weak and unfit among the old. All cloudy meanings, most of the tautological forms, all trivial, mean, low, and contemptible words should be cut out and forgotten. This can not be done without knowledge; linguistic discipline is essential. Keenness of perception, sensitiveness to good and evil words and forms of speech are necessary to those who would conserve the best elements of their tongue whilst eliminating the unworthy elements. The recognition of this truth should be the motive behind the usual dissertation on linguistics; also it is an apology for the presentation of a book on language to an indifferent public.

He who has a word to say in defense of good form, in favor of correct usage—he who attacks the corrupters of his tongue—is popularly regarded as a kind of Don Quixote. Indeed this modern knight of words cuts a sorry figure in his assaults on windmills and winesacks. Yet who can deny that he performs at least some small service? Not only is this redresser of linguistic wrongs subject to the goodnatured indifference of the masses, he is a victim also of frequent drubbings by the critic who durst not attempt to construct but who is doughty to demolish; and besides, our Sire-suppresser of the evils of speech must put up with the jeers of the modern philologist who sees no good in trying to conserve the correct usage of words. Contemporary philologists seem to believe that whatever is (in usage) is right and proper. This casts all linguistic law to the winds, flouts the aristocracy of intelligence and learning, and worships unbathed democracy as the true god of language. The laws of correctness are abrogated for the usages of caprice, ignorance, and for careless inaccuracy.

Betwixt the two extremes probably there is a reasonable middle ground. The correct use of words may be encouraged while an over-critical, or finical disposition toward the subject, may be scouted with reason. There never is any occasion to make mountains of mole-hills. The broad view can not take note of insignificant detail and immaterial defects, both which may be remedied without militant strictures or the attempt to give elementary instruction to such a mature and sturdy growth as our mother-tongue.

All have seen valiant knights of speech hurl with fine scorn and mighty ignorance their barbed and glittering spears; we have heard them revel in sarcasm and chuckle at their own wit; in a paragraph, we have known them to dispose of an entire subject with all its relations and roots running back through centuries of history; we have seen them armored in shining brass and barricaded behind epigrams; we have encountered their irrefutable sneers; we have heard them assert, in effect, that if a word meant something in an elder day it should mean nothing more nor less in a later. An added meaning, a variation in shade, an increase of capacity—these have been accounted linguistic offenses;—and we have not been able to escape the conviction that the enthusiasts were unduly carried away from a rational course by false perspective, albeit with good intents.

We always have had over-zealous defenders of our tongue, ever ready to kill words and phrases “smelling of the plow-tail,” as Boccaccio says, or coming from the “vulgar lower classes,” as the snob would say. Despite the strictures, however, of these purist knights, such phrases as “let the mind lie fallow,” “harrow up the soul,” “sow sedition broadcast,” “winnow a mass of testimony,” and others of a like kind, have crept into English, and they show no signs of leaving it. Slang passing into dialect and dialect into idiom vitalizes and enriches language. For example, “to keep posted” has taken on a wider meaning than “to keep informed.” To be “posted” implies not only to be “informed” of the facts, but to have the facts classified and ready for use. Likewise, “endorsement” is broader through extension of meaning than “approval,” because it suggests responsibility for the object endorsed, which may be anything from a note of promise to a person’s character.

On the other hand, popular education has done too little for the cause of good English. This neglect no doubt has marred our literary style in proportion as it has smothered our instinct for correct and fine speech. Not only do we find the refinements of our tongue neglected in our public schools, but even frowned upon in the halls of élite training. When such a distinguished scholar, author and professor as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch advises against fine writing, one may well despair of its encouragement by littler lights. “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing,” says “Q” in his Cambridge Lecture on Style (1913–14), “obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” This “practical rule,” given by Sir Arthur to his pupils, has a good deal to commend it if “fine writing” be understood to contain a pinch or two of irony in its flavor.

Everybody who reads Scribner’s loves William Lyon Phelps. “As I Like It,” is the first thing we turn to in opening that magazine. When you read Phelps you come in touch with a very unusual person: good-natured, almost jolly, but always well-behaved. He sheds his learning in such a pleasant way that his reader feels wise without troubling himself to become so; neither can you help feeling that Phelps walks around on his feet, sees with his eyes, thinks with his own head, yet—and this is the miracle of it—he writes your own thoughts, and always he does it just before you thought of doing it yourself. All that is very well; but there is a drowned fly in the cream, just the same. If it were not for that fly! Of course it is small business to pick flies from such good cream; still, who swallows a drowned fly, if he knows it? Let fashion do what it will; let “Q” say what he will to his pupils; and let Phelps set as many examples as he please, intentionally or not, to delight the literary ghost of Roosevelt! the fact remains that dead flies are not nice, even in the best of cream. Here is a blue bottle-fly, not “As I Like It” but as it appears on page 243 in the cream of Scribner’s for August, 1923:

“When we remember what hardships he endured on the road, what reverses of fortune he suffered, enough to shatter a less indomitable spirit, when we remember the long weeks without hardly any sleep (italics mine) and the wretched cold food he ate in impossible conditions, the fact that he lived to be over eighty must be reckoned among his achievements.”

It no longer is fashionable, if it ever was, to praise the prose of Ingersoll, Beaudelaire, and a few others who put more poetry and beauty into their prose than all the dear Lowells ever got into their verse. Poetic prose, rhythmical without rhyme, lyric in feeling, at once strong, clear, and beautiful seems to have passed out. In its stead we find a style that is hard, slipshod, disagreeable—too much like average conversation. In this, as in some other respects, our educational system or vogue compares unfavorably with that of some other countries. In France, for instance, careful consideration is given to the teaching of a correct use of words not only but to the development of taste and style in discourse. From the notion, or one similar, that a rich man may dress like a slovenly pauper, many of our college men take ugly liberties with their mother-tongue. Barbarisms, however, are inexcusable in the literary expressions of the educated.

“For me, words have color, form, character. They have faces, parts, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humors, eccentricities; they have tints, tones, personalities.”[1]

To the majority of us, words are merely parts of speech; they perform only the primordial functions of language. To this same majority, architecture means little more than a “pretty” exterior of a building. The masses are interested more in the usefulness of a building than in its architectural features. The attitude of mass-consciousness is similar toward the various forms of art; that is to say, the question of beauty rightly enough is secondary to that of utility. A meal to a hungry traveler is of more importance to him than is polished diction. A few creature-comforts obtained through crudely constructed phrases of ugly words are more to be desired than is beauty of language if it must be coupled with privation. This is the rule primitive and primordial. But there comes a time in the progress of a people when the laws of beauty are operative because the demands of a higher and nobler nature have become imperative. This condition manifests itself both by a quickening of the masses—a dim longing in the heart of humanity—and a peculiar activity of those whom we call artists, for short. The leaven is at work. Slowly mass-consciousness becomes aware of needs that rise above the strictly utilitarian. Gradually the laws of beauty, the principles of subdued adornment, become insistent, and, thanks to them, language assumes finer qualities and subtler graces.

In admitting this statement as true, there is no occasion for anybody to presume superiority of viewpoint. The attitude of the crasser majority is as logical as is that of the more cultured minority. Both positions are natural, and their underlying principles may readily be discovered. But when an architect, for instance, emphasizes in his work only the features of its primitive requirements, he frankly lowers his profession to the trade of the builder. So, when the author argues by precept or example for the slipshod use of words; when he intensifies only the basic function of language; when he suppresses nice discriminations in his choice of words; and when he ignores the simple elegancies of diction, he becomes a reactionist in effect, a decadent in spirit, a pessimist in linguistics, a reprehensible writer, and a mistaken person.

To quote again the very quotable Quiller-Couch: “Words are, in fine, the only currency in which we can exchange thought even with ourselves. Does it not follow, then, that the more accurately we use words the closer definition we shall give to our thoughts? Does it not follow that by drilling ourselves to write perspicuously we train our minds to clarify their thought? Does it not follow that some practice in the deft use of words, with its correspondent defining of thought, may well be ancillary to the study of natural science in a university?”

In previous chapters it has been shown that words are more than mere parts of speech; that they are complex in character, multitudinous in relationship, and various in function. They no longer can be regarded merely as wheelbarrows to ideas. They have accumulated heritages of which they can not be deprived without a distinct loss to literature, without embarrassment to higher social intercourse. To dispossess them of their inscrutable powers slowly acquired would be to denude literature of its flower and foliage; much of its beauty would be lost, and its suggestiveness would suffer; the blossoms of poetry would fade, and the fragrance of language which excites emotion would pass away; the contagion between moods would weaken; verbal qualities of reflection and of parallelism above and beyond the cold level of fact would vanish.

To the lover of belles-lettres—to the sensitive soul of a Keats or a Hearn—words are living, mutable things. In a sense they are capricious, for they suggest different conceptions to different minds and to the same mind under different stress. While having standards, they impart different shades of meaning to us all in our varying moods. Words are rigid only in the lexicographic tomb where their embalmed bodies are mutilated and labeled; but their airy spirits dance over the earth playing pranks of enchantment with the minds they serve.

In the poetic atmosphere of romance, words are mortals even as we; they are the spirited subjects of the emotive intellect; and they are dominated by the laws of birth, life, and death. Some words pass trippingly down the ages, suffering little change; others are stillborn; some lead heavy, unhappy lives; while others are gay as butterflies beneath cloudless summer skies; some are balmy with the breath of humor; and others are like sparks struck from flint and steel: some are puny, and others have constitutions of iron; many are ugly monsters born to crime; some are like songs—the soul of music dwells in them; some are like stinging bees, come to torment; others are like winged arrows shot at shining marks; some are poisoned barbs that kill, others the brutal bludgeons that bruise and stun; some are the demons that torture; and others are the good angels that sustain and soothe.

If anything in this world has a spirit it is a word; if anything has a mission it is a word; if anything has power for good or evil it is a word. Words are beings that inhabit some mysterious dimension; they come to us unbidden; they will not endure capture, for they die in slavery. Words which we calmly search out and appropriate often prove to be corpses; they no longer can serve the mind as swift and competent messengers of thought and feeling, but they seem made for ideas that are moribund; they are vehicles for the dead; they are hearses driven by sombre undertakers; others are dead bodies unburied; we may wrap them in gaudy rags but they remain the lifeless things of idle show.

Words are gregarious and clannish; some marry and thus travel in couples; some go in families or groups. A swarm hovers over a man all his life, and we speak of it as his vocabulary. Words have affinities or likings; some are elusive as the fallow doe when the leaves begin to turn; others thrust themselves upon us, and like unwelcome guests bore us with their dullness; some are impudent as a Spanish beggar; others are coy as a maiden with her first lover; some are bawds —the shameless jades of speech; some are outlaws heard only in whispers—banished forever from the printed page—prisoners in obscene chambers denied of air and light. Some words come to us only in dreams; some steal upon us unaware to shame us by their presence; others blossom from the lips to bless all in their company; some are lecherous beasts that prowl, as wolves, about our nobler moods to devour the best children of our thought. Some words are the voice of frenzy, the cry of pain, the moans of the dying; some are the challenge of the strong who dare, others the plea of the weak who fear; some are the clarion of victory, and others are the echo of defeat; some are liars and some are the soul of truth; some are sneaks and others are as candid as the eye of courage; some are all laughter and others all gloom; some are smiles and some are tears; and all are what we are ourselves—modified by the tones they wear, as we are by our raiment.

As Hearn says, words have personalities; they combine as if by magic, and lo! a poem is born. Some lend themselves to the honeyed seductions of rhythm and metre; others are as stubborn as the highland glebe beneath the breath of frost. Some words have auras, and some stink—many suggest colors and fine odors; and every one carries a meaning, almost known to babes, that has escaped the dictionary-maker. Words indeed are mysterious beings. Whatever they may have been originally, they have evolved into something higher, something very unlike their earliest ancestors, as we are unlike ours.

There is a certain fatalism about words. We do not even choose our vocabularies; and if our vocabularies do not strictly choose us, at least we are dependents, in a sense, as in another, from our ancestors. There is a similar fatalism in all things, especially with regard to morals. We are given both weeds and flowers. Spiritual longing teaches us to suppress on the one hand and to encourage on the other. So it is with our words. Decency bids us to uproot the coarse and nasty elements of our speech. Kindness enables us to cultivate the wholesome, the generous; and wisdom helps us to kill all cruel forms. Art says, make friends with the beautiful—make war on the ugly. Utility demands the use of clear, persuasive, unequivocal terms. Only falsehood and diplomacy need the uncertain, the two-faced words. Thus it is a form of immorality to be slovenly in speech, or to revert to cruder forms of expression, even in addressing the culturally deficient and the spiritually bankrupt, for to them we owe our best, since they of all others need it most.

  1. Japanese Letters—Hearn.