Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.
Probably the most important essay about language is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Although it is over 60 years old, many of his insights are still relevant to today—and in some respects more relevant than ever. The essay is extremely well written, so no summary will do it justice. Everyone should read it in its entirety.
Orwell writes about the staleness that characterizes contemporary writing. He points out how much writing is not about expressing good ideas clearly. Writers co-opt the ideas of other people, and therefore their muddled thoughts result in muddled writing. Orwell writes: “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” The result is language that is fundamentally meaningless.
Little has changed since 1946. We are inundated with language that’s meaningless. Throughout the past few months, people opposed to President Obama have accused him of being a “Fascist,” a “Nazi,” a “Socialist,” and a “Jihadist.” Each of those words has a precise meaning, which is incompatible with the others. The most common slur, “socialist,” actually is diametrically opposed to the others. Among those who slander President Obama, accuracy isn’t really the point. They are capitalizing on the emotional connotations of the terms with no thought given to their denotations.
The emotional content of words is often foremost these days. Take advertising, for instance. A bank recently tried to attract college students by describing itself as “extreme banking.” Extreme? Really?? Perhaps if they located their ATMs 15 feet above the ground, requiring customers to rock-climb up to them; or if their ATMs gave an electric jolt to randomly selected users. Needless to say, no activity could be described as “extreme” less than banking. And with the recent banking crisis still not resolved, do we really want banks to put themselves in the same category as bungee-jumping? Its marketing department selected that word for its emotional effect, with no regard given to its actual meaning. Indeed, in that context “extreme” meant absolutely nothing.
Sometimes advertisers choose words that contradict their message outright. Several years ago Coca-cola began a new marketing drive: “Coke, Everyday.” Coke’s advertising wizards were tapping into the renewed interest in the Sly and Family Stone song “Everyday People.” And, of course, they wanted people to drink Coke daily. There was just one problem: when written as one word, “everyday” means “ordinary” or “commonplace.” That’s not exactly a concept they’d want associated with their product.
The study of literature depends on the proper understanding of language. To understand irony, or to see the subtlety in poetry, the students need to know exactly what the words mean. That exactitude can be translated to their future writing.
But perhaps the perfect reply to thoughtless language does not come from literature. In the film The Princess Bride, one of the criminals kept repeating the word, “inconceivable.” One of his henchmen sagely responded, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is precisely the attitude most of us need to take.