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Observing our Words

The language a man speaks is the world in which he lives and strives; it belongs to him more essentially than the land and things he calls his home.

Romano Guardini

Last fall, the science department gave a presentation on how they treat the boys as “sovereign knowers.” That is, the boys learn science by their own experience as much as (or more than) by textbooks. This means observation. For example, diagrams of a chicken’s development may be helpful; but it is far more helpful (not to mention more fun) actually to have the eggs, incubate them, and see the chicks poking through and growing. This approach to our natural environment is also a good approach to our mental environment. And what is our mental environment? Our words. 

As I tell my students, most thinking is done with words. In fact, it is difficult to think without them, and so our words enlarge or restrict, sharpen or dull, straighten or warp our thinking. Much like our physical environment, we move in the world of words every day, often without being aware of how much they affect us. We often don’t appreciate its beauty, and, sadly, seldom clear out the verbal litter that clutters our minds. In light of that, I should like to suggest three ways we could be more observant with our words. 

Examining Words

First, we should be observant with our words by studying them. Dig them up and take them apart. Where did they come from? How are certain words similar? How are some words that seem similar actually different? What do they look like when we see them? Sound like when we say them? Feel like when we write them? Taste like when we have to swallow them? And, yes, even what do they smell like, for words can have an evocation as distinct as the aroma of fresh coffee or the smell of bus exhaust.  

For example, take that delightful insect that floats around your flowers in summer: the butterfly. An odd name. But it comes from a phonetic process called metathesis whereby syllables switch places. It’s why your four year-old says “psketti” instead of “spaghetti.” So that creature’s original name was actually very descriptive. It was—the “flutterby.” 

“Silly” originally meant “blessed” in Old English. (It was then spelled seely.) In the Beatitudes, all those “blesseds” were seely: “Seely are the poor in spirit,” etc. Our Lord also called children “seely” or “blessed” (“Unless you become as a child…”); and the term gradually came to describe their behavior. So to be child-like (or “silly”) was to be blessed. There is an echo here of Chesterton’s dictum that “Satan fell by force of gravity.” 

“Troublesome,” “fearsome,” and “tiresome” (as well as many other words) have the suffix -some which makes an adjective from a noun. A troublesome person causes trouble; a fearsome person causes fear; a tiresome person wears you out, and so forth. So where does “handsome” come in? Well, handsome does come from the word “hand” but originally meant something “at hand,” or, as we might say today, “useful” or “handy.” The meaning shifted a little to mean “appropriate” or “fitting.” So your actions can be handsome and so can your speech. From there it came to mean “pleasing,” and “pleasing to the eye” gives us modern use of the word. (And in case you’re wondering, the stem of “gruesome” has its roots in an old German word gruen meaning—and perhaps cognate to—“cruel” or “causing to shudder”; which may explain the character Gru in Despicable Me.)

Or look at the words “infant” and “infantry.” Why do words which mean “baby” and “foot soldier” look alike? Because they come from the same root. The “in” here means “not” (as in “invisible” or “inconceivable”), and the “fan” comes from a Latin word meaning “speaking.” So an infant is one who can’t speak yet; that’s easy enough. But what about “infantry”? Well, in later Latin, the term came to encompass any young person. Then in the Middle Ages, a knight needed a young boy to watch over his things (sometimes called a “page”), and the term was applied to those who walked alongside the knights into battle (and would join in the fighting); hence, “infantry.” 

These family resemblances are all over the place if you take time to notice. A king is a ruler, and so is that twelve inch piece of wood, because they both make things straight. The Greek word muse meaning “to think or ponder” gives us both “museum” (a place to study or think) and “amusement” meaning “something done without thinking” (the “a-” prefix means “not” as in “amoral” or “apolitical”). That tells you what amusement parks really are. 

What do the words sound like? Have you noticed how the words “angry” and “anxious” both begin with the same “ang-” sound? (The “x” comes from a combination of “g” and “s.”) They come from the same Greek word meaning “to strangle.” When you’re angry, you want to strangle someone, and when you’re anxious, you feel as though you’re being strangled. 

“Velleity” rolls off the tongue capriciously, making it fit to describe most boys’ desires for better grades. The word “dusk” comes out almost as a whisper, well expressing the setting of the sun at the close of day. And “pub” just sounds like a good time. 

What do they feel like? This is where you need to take pen in hand. Write the word “Mississippi”; doesn’t it feel like a long, winding river? “Quixotic”—with the “q” (especially a capital “Q”) at the beginning and the “x” in the middle—also has a delightfully quirky quality. And going up and down with all the “u”s in “lugubrious” seems to bring a sense of melancholy.

Just like a meal seems to taste better when presented well, words (at least to me) have more force when written well, and so we should take care with our penmanship. Maybe we can’t learn calligraphy, but we can and ought to ensure our written words pass the basic test of writing, which is that the recipient be able to read them. A seismographic scrawl is the penned equivalent of mumbling, showing at best laziness and at worst evasion.

Some words leave a bad taste in my mouth and I try not to use them because they state major offenses that are often just misunderstandings. For example, a mistake is not a “lie,” or else the people on the Weather Channel would be in the confessional every day. And when one student inadvertently picks up another student’s pencil off the floor, he is not “stealing.” Our culture is unfortunately awash with labels that are rarely accurate and frequently hurtful. 

Exaggerations—“always,” “never”—should also be avoided. 

And there are some words that don’t pass the “smell test.” “Technically” is high on my list. When I practiced law, if my client began his defense with “Well, technically … ,” I knew he was guilty. (Students are never late for class; they just “technically” came in after it started.) I also don’t trust “paradigm.” No one really knows what it is, and it seems to shift to suit a person’s needs (or velleities). And beware of “vital.” Few things are—air, water, food, pipe tobacco. Many other things—energy drinks, cell-phones, the Department of Education—are not. And, for the record, I don’t care for “dialogue”; it’s always being opened up and never seems to shut down.

Sometimes words can look similar, but have useful distinctions. “Stupendous” and “stupefying” may seem as though they mean the same thing, but “stupendous” means “marvelous” or “causing amazement” while “stupefying” means “to benumb the faculties” (“put into a stupor”). I’ll leave it to you to choose which word to use to describe the recent visit by the in-laws. 

The same can be said about “meritorious” and “meretricious.” They both begin with a “merit” sound, and so both may be taken to mean “worthy of merit or praise.” And, indeed, meritorious does mean that. But the second “e” shows that meretricious comes from a decidedly different root word and gives it the meaning of “counterfeit or misleading.” A convenient ploy to describe your political opponents’ proposals.

Some men are bores, others are boars, and most former athletes turned commentators are both. Legalized betting has many gamboling at gambling. And midterms may be inevitable but are not necessarily inexorable. 

Using Words Well

The second way we can be observant with words is to monitor our use of them; that is, use them correctly. I liken words to power tools: useful if you know how to use them, but dangerous if you don’t. So know what a word means before you use it, and don’t use it unless you’re sure it’s the right one. Students are rarely disinterested about their grades but often uninterested. Our God is a jealous god but not an envious one. Lady MacBeth was mad, not angry, while teachers can often get angry but are rarely mad. “Humanity”—as are most –ity words—is an abstract noun (e.g., “urbanity,” “genility”) meaning the quality of being human, and not a substitute for the concrete nouns of man, mankind, or the human race. Our Lord died to save mankind, not humanity.

This is also where the grammarian in me comes out. Take the bugaboo “can” and “may.” “Can” is a helping verb showing ability and “may” is used to show permission. The distinction should be maintained. Many problems in our culture stem from this inability to distinguish what we have the capacity to do and whether we are allowed (by God or our responsibility to each other) to do it. 

As for “like,” I would like to do away with it. It’s a rhetorical dodge and weave to avoid responsibility, as in “Like, sir, like, I didn’t, like, do my, like, homework.” This, I believe, is a verbal fallout from our culture’s increasing flight from reality. We are so taken with “virtual reality”—an oxymoron if there ever was one—that we now cannot even make a simple declarative statement. You didn’t do your homework. Period. 

Then, use “like” when meaning “similar to” or when making comparisons and not as a substitute for “such as” which means “for example.” Presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter served in the armed forces. On the other hand, we would prefer all our presidents to be like George Washington and put national interests above party politics. 

 “Fewer” and “less” get confused. Use “fewer” for numbers and “less” for amounts. Edgar has fewer classes this year, and so he has less homework.  

Many professions and pursuits, and even locations, have specialized vocabularies, and if we aren’t careful we can commit solecism or be embarrassed. Artists know the difference between a hue and tint. Politicians distinguish between resolution and bills. When the American golfer Bobby Clampett played in his first British Open, he wore those old-fashioned trousers called “knickers,” and later described to the British press how comfortable the knickers were. He couldn’t understand their giggles until someone told him that in Britain “knickers” referred to a woman’s undergarments. On that side of the pond, they’re called “plus fours.” 

Observing Words in the World

Finally, we can observe our words the way we observe our holidays; that is, celebrate them. C. S. Lewis said, “Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best.” This is why we are blessed with the English language. It has one of the richest (if not the richest) vocabularies in the world: more than 171,000 words. The sixteen volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (each volume at least four inches thick) sit on the top shelf of my office allowing me to shave my meaning to a razor’s edge. English started as a Germanic language, then—starting in 1066—was covered with a layer of Frenchified Latin. About the year 1500, it was painted over again with Latin and Greek words. Today, words from all over the world have wheedled their way in. That is why we can exhibit pluck, courage, tenacity, and chutzpah all at the same time. 

I have never seen a student walk to class. The lower school boys, cheerfully looking forward to a day in the Valley, amble or stroll. I’ve even seen them parade. By the time they get to the Middle School, with backpacks as heavy as themselves, they trudge, plod, lumber, or stumble up the hill at the side of the school. Tardy freshmen, sophomores, and most juniors, with pensive brow, might skulk or creep into the building, trying desperately to avoid certain faculty. Insouciant seniors sometimes stride, sometimes traipse, and often just waddle their way in. (Once the second semester begins, though, a definite jauntiness is noticed and they tend to—as P. G. Wodhouse’s Bertie Wooster often does—ankle around to class.) 

Your thesaurus (from the Greek word for “treasure”) should be consulted as often as your dictionary. Finding the right word gives me a pleasure as keen as watching a perfectly turned double-play or tasting freshly baked bread. Summer storm clouds are cerulean. My wife, the perfect hostess, sculpts the napkins into various folds. Churchill talked of his bouts of depression as “the black dog.” The sixth graders I teach often squirrel into the room. A friend once described a wine as “charming the palate.” You get the idea. 

Getting back to what the science department was teaching us, let us observe our words more carefully. They are powerful, delightful, and creative. They do, indeed, belong to us, but we also belong to them. As often as we speak them or write them, they shape us and reveal us. We are worth the trouble.  

Some resources (and fun books to read)

The Writer’s Art by James J. Kilpatrick

Studies in Words by C. S. Lewis 

Anything by P. G. Wodehouse 


About the Author

Robert Greving

Latin, English

Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps.  Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.

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