The Vocabula Review

October 2008, Vol. 10, No. 10 Friday, May 6, 2016

Book Excerpt

Silence, Language, & Society Robert Hartwell Fiske
Web version

1. Being silent is the chance to think, to talk to oneself, and it is preferable to much of what we say aloud. We need to speak, as we need to write, with more deliberation and clarity. Our sanity and our society depend on it. Thought is borne of quiet, of internal talk. In today's money-grubbing, entertainment-ridden, fear-induced society, there is scant value in being still and thinking for oneself.

2. Even today — subjected as we are to the apotheosis of popular culture — using the English language respectfully helps us maintain a sense of ourselves and our values. To do otherwise, to disregard the ways of our words, is to forsake our humanity and, perhaps, even forfeit our future.

3. The point of learning new words is not to impress your friends or to seem more intelligent than they. The point is to see more, to understand more. An ever-increasing vocabulary uncovers connections, introduces spheres, and — in reminding us that there are words for all thoughts, all feelings, all behaviors, all things — upholds all humankind.


50. As the meaning of one word distinguishes it from the meaning of another, so the words we use distinguish each of us from others. Language, how we express ourselves as much as what we express, is designed to discriminate; it distinguishes, it defines, it identifies. We choose our friends, we choose our work, and we choose our words.

51. Distinguish your writing and speaking from others', and you distinguish yourself.

52. Slang is ephemeral. A slang word popular one year may be forgotten the next. As clever as some slang is, if you use it in your writing, you'll ensure that your writing is equally ephemeral.

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(like) a (an emotional) roller-coaster (ride) Without relentless amusement, endless diversions, people might manage to speak tolerably well. As it is, the need to be entertained so overcomes us that we can speak in little but laughable images. The expression (like) a (an emotional) roller-coaster (ride), one such image, results from and gives rise to only carnival-like conversation, sideshow prose.

conversate Over the last few years, this ridiculous word has cleaved to young adults, sports figures, and, now, others ill advised. Any dictionary that eventually adds this word born of imbecility to its pages is a dictionary to be disdained.

ginormous Merriam-Webster's has added nearly one hundred new words to the 2007 update of the eleventh edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Among them is the word ginormous, a synonym of the equally loathsome, equally silly humongous.

Combining "gigantic" and "enormous," ginormous is a word for which we already have a great many synonyms. It's easy to create synonyms of readily understandable concepts like largeness.

Better than new, ill-defined words for simple concepts like largeness would be new words for less easily understood or less often encountered concepts like bravery or justice or truth. Having more synonyms of words such as these may, over time, affect people's behavior and increase the occurrence of bravery, the spread of justice, or the value of truth.

Ginormous is a silly slang term that does nothing to improve our understanding of ourselves or our world. What's more, some people, simple though the concept of large should be, apparently have trouble understanding the word:

• It was a ginormous year for the wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster.

• She gave her mom, Kathy, a ginormous hug before the hotel entrepreneurs sped off to their Bel-Air mansion for some quality time together.

• But I have one ginormous point to add.

go forward, move forward Only the least eloquent speakers use go forward or move forward in the right direction. These expressions are wholly unable to move us. Inefficacious all, they dull our minds and immobilize our actions.

These useless expressions are spoken and written by people who seem unable to remember that the English language has both a present and a future tense. Going forward, moving forward, and the like are used instead of, or along with, present- or future-tense expressions. This may mean that, before long, people will not easily be able to distinguish between the present and the future, or that they may not be able to think in terms of the future. Already, there is evidence of this, for many of us are without imagination and foresight.

or something As there are phrases that help us begin sentences — I'll tell you (something), Lemme tell you something — so there are phrases that help us end them. Or something, or something like that, or something or other extricate us from having to conclude our thoughts clearly. Said as a person's thoughts end, but before his words do, or something, like its many relations, is a thoughtless phrase that reminds us only of our trembling humanity.

From Silence, Language, & Society by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Copyright © 2008 Vocabula Books. All rights reserved.

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Robert Hartwell Fiske

Robert Hartwell Fiske :: Move me  

Robert Hartwell Fiske is the editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review. He is the author of The Dictionary of Unendurable English and To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.


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