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Words : their use and abuse online

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thought. Who wants to swallow a whole ox, in order to
get at the tenderloin?

Prolixity, it has been well said, is more offensive now
than it once was, because men think more rapidly. They
are not more thoughtful than their ancestors, but they
are more vivid, direct, and animated in their thinking.
They are more impatient, therefore, of longwindedness,
of a loose arrangement, and of a heavy, dragging move-
ment in the presentation of truth. "A century ago men
would listen to speeches and sermons, to divisions and
subdivisions, that now would be regarded as utterly intol-
erable. As the human body is whisked through space at
the rate of a mile a minute, so the human mind travels
with an equally accelerated pace. Mental operations are
on straight lines, and are far more rapid than they once
were. The public audience now craves a short method, a
distinct sharp statement, and a rapid and accelerating
movement, upon the part of its teachers." * It is, in short,
an age of steam and electricity that we live in, not of slow
coaches; an age of locomotives, electric telegraphs, and
phonography; and hence it is the cream of a speaker's
thoughts that men want, the wheat, and not the chaff,
the kernel, and not the shell, the strong pungent essence,

* Shedd's " Homiletics,"


and not the thin, diluted mixture. The model discourse
to-day is that which gives, not all that can be said, even
well said, on a subject, but the very apices rerum, the tops
and sums of things reduced to their simplest expression,
the drop of oil extracted from thousands of roses, and
condensing all their odors, the healing power of a hun-
dred weight of bark in a few grains of quinine.

" Certainly the greatest and wisest conceptions that ever
issued from the mind of man," says South, " have been
couched under, and delivered in, a few, close, home, and
significant words. . . Was not the work of all the six
days (of creation) transacted in so many words? . . .
Heaven, and earth, and all the host of both, as it were,
dropped from God's mouth, and nature itself was but the
product of a word. . . The seven wise men of Greece, so
famous for their wisdom all the world over, acquired all
that fame, each of them by a single sentence, consisting of
two or three words. And yv<b$i ffeaurov still lives and
nourishes in the mouths of all, while many vast volumes
are extinct, and sunk into dust and utter oblivion."

Akin to the prolixity of style which weakens so many
speeches, is the habitual exaggeration of language which
deforms both our public and our private discourse. The
most unmanageable of all parts of speech, with many
persons, is the adjective. Voltaire has justly said that the
adjectives are often the greatest enemies of the substan-
tives, though they may agree in gender, number, and case.
An adjective is, indeed, an addition; but "an addition may
be an incumbrance, as even a dog finds out when a kettle
is tied to his tail." Generally the weakness of a composi-.
tion is just in proportion to the frequency with which this
abused class of words is introduced. As in gunnery the


force of the discharge is proportioned, not to the amount
of powder that can be used, but to the amount that can be
thoroughly ignited, so it is not the multitude of words, but
the exact number fired by the thought, that gives energy to
expression. There are some writers and speakers who seem
to have forgotten that there are three degrees of compari-
son. The only adjectives they ever use are the superlative,
and even these are raised to the third power. With them
there is no gradation, no lights and shadows. Every hill is
Alpine, every valley Tartarean; every virtue is godlike,
every fault a felony; every breeze a tempest, and every
molehill a mountain. Praise or blame beggars their vocab-
ulary; epithets are heightened into superlatives; superla-
tives stretch themselves into hyperboles; and hyperboles
themselves get out of breath, and die asthmatically of

Of all the civilized peoples on the face of the globe, our
Hibernian friends excepted, Americans are probably t In-
most addicted to this exaggeration of speech. As our
mountains, lakes, and rivers are all on a gigantic scale, we
seem to think our speech must be framed after the same
pattern. Even our jokes are of the most stupendous kind;
they set one to thinking of the Alleghanies, or suggest the
immensity of the prairies. A Western orator, in portraying
the most trivial incident, rolls along a Mississippian flood
of eloquence, and the vastness of his metaphors makes you
think you are living in the age of the megatheriums and,
saurians, and listening to one of a pre- Adamite race. In
ordinary conversation, such is our enthusiasm or our
poverty of expression, that we cannot talk upon the most
ordinary themes, except in the most extravagant and en-
raptured terms. Everything that pleases us is positively


" delicious," " nice," or " charming " ; everything handsome
is "elegant," or "splendid"; everything that we dislike is
"hateful," "dreadful," " horrible," or "shocking." Listen
to a circle of lively young ladies for a few minutes, and
you will learn that, within the compass of a dozen hours,
they have met with more marvelous adventures and hair-
breadth escapes, passed through more thrilling experi-
ences, and seen more gorgeous spectacles, endured more
fright, and enjoyed more rapture, than could be crowded
into a whole life-time, even if spun out to threescore and

Ask a person what he thinks of the weather in a rainy
season, and he will tell you that " it rains cats and dogs,"
or that "it beats all the storms since the flood." If his
clothes get sprinkled in crossing the street, he has been
"drenched to the skin." The days are "as dark as Egypt,"
and the mud in the streets is everywhere " up to one's
knees." If a Yankee makes a shrewd or lucky speculation,
he is said to have cleared "heaps of money," and every-
body envies him " the pile of greenbacks he has bagged."
All our winds blow a hurricane; all our fires are confla-
grations, even though only a hencoop is burned; all our
fogs can be cut with a knife. Nobody fails in this country;
he "bursts up." All our orators rival Demosthenes in
eloquence; they beat Chillingworth in logic; and their
sarcasm is more " withering " than that of Junius himself.
Who ever heard of a public meeting in this country that
was not "an immense demonstration"; of an actor's benefit
at which the house was not " crowded from pit to dome " ;
of a political nomination that was not "sweeping the
country like wild-fire"? Where is the rich man who does
not "roll in wealth," or the poor man who is "worth


the first red cent"? All our good men are paragons of
virtue, our villains, monsters of iniquity.

Many of our public speakers seem incapable of express-
ing themselves in a plain, calm, truthful manner on any
subject whatever. A great deal of our writing, too. is
pitched on an unnatural, falsetto key. Quiet ease of style,
like that of Cowley's "Essays," Goldsmith's "Vicar of
Wakefield," or White's "Natural History of Selborne," is
almost a lost art. Our newspaper literature is becoming
more and more sensational; and it seems sometimes as if
it would come to consist of head-lines and exclamation
points. Some of the most popular correspondents are
those whose communications are a perfect florilegium of
fine words. They rival the " tulipomania " in their love
of gaudy and glaring colors, and apparently care little
how trite or feeble their thoughts may be, provided they
have dragon-wings, all green and gold. It was said of
Rufus Choate, whose brain teemed with a marvellous
wealth of words, and who was very prodigal of adjectives,
that he "drove a substantive-and-six " whenever he spoke
in public, and that he would be as pathetic as the grand
lamentations in " Samson Agonistes " on the obstruction
of fishways, and rise to the cathedral music of the uni-
verse on the right to manufacture India-rubber suspend-
ers. When Chief- Justice Shaw, before whom he had often
pleaded, heard that there was a new edition of " Worces-
ter's Dictionary," containing two thousand five hundred
new words, he exclaimed, "For heaven's sake, don't let
Choate get hold of it!"

Even scientific writers, who might be expected to aim at
some exactness, often caricature truth with equal grossness,
describing things the most Liliputian by Brobdignagian


metaphors. Thus a French naturalist represents the blood
of a louse as "rushing through his veins like a torrent!"
Even ii? treating of this very subject of exaggeration, a
writer in an English periodical, after rebuking sharply
this American fault, himself outrages truth by declaring
that "he would walk fifty miles on foot to see the man that
never caricatures the subject on which he speaks!" To a
critic who thus fails to reck his own rede, we would say
with Sir Thomas Browne: " Thou who so hotly disclaimest
the devil, be not thyself guilty of diabolism."

Seriously, when shall we have done with this habit of
amplification and exaggeration, of blowing up molehills
into Himalayas and Chimborazos? Can anything be more
obvious than the dangers of such a practice? Is it not
evident that by applying super-superlatives to things petty
or commonplace, we must exhaust our vocabulary, so that
when a really great thing is to be described, we shall be
bankrupt of adjectives? It is true there is no more unpar-
donable sin than dulness; but, to avoid being drowsy, it is
not necessary that our "good Homers" should be always
electrifying us with a savage intensity of expression.
There is nothing of which a reader tires so soon as of a
continual blaze of brilliant periods, a style in which a
"qu' il mourut" and a "let there be light" are crowded
into every line. On the other hand, there is nothing which
adds so much to the beauty of style as contrast. Where all
men are giants, there are no giants; where all is emphatic
in style, there is no emphasis. Travel a few months among
the mountains, and you will grow as sick of the everlast-
ing monotony of grandeur, of beetling cliffs and yawning
chasms, as of an eternal succession of plains. Yet in
defiance of this obvious truth, the sensational writer thinks


the reader will deem him dull unless every sentence blazes
with meaning, and every paragraph is crammed with
power. His intellect is always armed cap-a-pie, and every
passage is an approved attitude of mental carte and tierce.
If he were able to create a world, there would probably be
no latent heat in it, and no twilight; and should he drop
his pen and turn painter, his pictures would all be fore-
ground, with no more perspective than those of the Chinese.
It is a law of oratory, and indeed of all discourse,
whether oral or written, that it is .the subdued expression
of conviction and feeling, when the speaker or writer, in-
stead of giving vent to his emotions, veils them in part,
and suffers only glimpses of them to be seen, that is the
most powerful. It is the man who is all but mastered by
his excitement, but who, at the very point of being mas-
tered, masters himself, apparently cool when he is at a
white heat, whose eloquence is most conquering. When
the speaker, using a gentler mode of expression than the
case might warrant, appears to stifle his feelings and studi-
ously to keep them within bounds, a reaction is produced in
the hearer's mind, and, rushing into the opposite extreme,
he is moved more deeply than by the most vehement and
passionate declamation. The jets of flame that escape now
and then, the suppressed bursts of feeling, the partial
eruptions of passion, are regarded as but hints or faint
intimations of the volcano within. Balzac, in one of his
tales, tells of an artist, who, by a few touches of his pencil,
could give to a most commonplace scene an air of over-
powering horror, and throw over 'the most ordinary and
prosaic objects a spectral air of crime and blood. Through
a half-opened door you see a bed with the clothes confusedly
heaped, as in rfome death-struggle, over an undefined object


which fancy whispers must be a bleeding corpse; on the
Moor you see a slipper, an upset candlestick, and a knife
perhaps; and these hints tell the story of blood more sig-
nificantly and more powerfully than the most elaborate
detail, because the imagination of man is more powerful
than art itself. So with Hood's description of the Haunted
House :

" Over all there hung a cloud of fear,

A sense of mystery the spirit daunted.
And said, as plain as whisper to the ear,
The place is haunted!"

Thoreau, describing an interview he had at Concord
with John Brown, notices as one of the latter's marked
peculiarities, that he did not overstate anything, but spoke
within bounds. " He referred to what his family had suf-
fered in Kansas, without ever giving the least vent to his
pent-up fire. It was a volcano with an ordinary chimney-
flue.'" In one of the published letters of the late Rev. P.
W. Eobertson, there are some admirable comments on a
letter, full of strongly-expressed religious sentiments, pious
resolutions, etc., which he had received from a fashionable
lady. The letter, he says, "is in earnest so far as it goes;
only that fatal facility of strong words expresses feeling
which will seek for itself no other expression. She believes
or means what she says, but the very vehemence of the
expression injures her, for really it expresses the penitence
of a St. Peter, and would not be below the mark if it were
meant to describe the bitter tears with which he bewailed
his crime; but when such language is used for trifles, there
remains nothing stronger for the aivful crises of human life.
It is like Draco's code, death for larceny, and there re-
mains for parricide or treason only death."


Let us, then, be as chary of our superlatives as of our
Sunday suit. Hardly a greater mistake can be made in
regard to expression, than to suppose that a uniform in-
tensity of style is a proof of mental power. So far is this
from being true, that it may safely be said that such inten-
sity not only implies a want of truthfulness and simplicity,
but even of earnestness and real force. Intensity is not a
characteristic of nature, in spirit or in matter. The sur-
face of the earth is not made up of mountains and valleys,
but, for the most part, of gentle undulations. The ocean is
not always in a rage, but, if not calm, its waves rise and
fall with gentle fluctuation. Hurricanes and tempests are
the extraordinary, not the usual, conditions of our atmos-
phere. Not only the strongest thinkers-, but the most pow-
erful orators, have been distinguished rather for modera-
tion than for exaggeration in expression. The great secret
of Daniel Webster's strength as a speaker lay in the fact
that he made it a practice to understate rather than to
overstate his confidence in the force of his own ai'guments,
and in the logical necessity of his conclusions. The sober
and solid tramp of his style reflected the movements of an
intellect that palpably respected the relations and dimen-
sions of things, and to which exaggeration would have
been an immorality. Holding that violence of language
is evidence of feebleness of thought and lack of reasoning
power, he kept his auditor constantly in advance of him,
by suggestion rather than by strong asseveration, and by
calmly stating the facts that ought to move the hearer.


instead of by tearing passion to tatters, the man being
always felt to be greater than the man's feelings. Such
has been the method of all great rhetoricians of ancient
and modern times.


The most effective speakers are not those who tell all
they think or feel, but those who, by maintaining an
austere conscientiousness of phrase, leave on their hearers
the impression of reserved power. On the other hand, if
we do the work of a pistol with a twenty-four pounder,
or kill cock robins with Paixhans, and, when anything
more formidable is to be destroyed, touch off the fusee of
a volcano, we shall find, when we come to the real tug
of war, that our instruments of offense are weak, worn
out and worthless. Great bastions of military strength
must lie at rest in times of peace, that they may be able
to execute their destructive agencies in times of war; and
so let it be with the superlatives of our tongue. Never
call on the " tenth legion," or " the old guard," except
on occasions corresponding to the dignity and weight
of those tremendous forces. Say plain things in a plain
way, and then, when you have occasion to send a sharp
arrow at your enemy, you will not find your quiver empty
of shafts which you wasted before they were wanted.

"You should not speak to think, nor think to speak;
But words and thoughts should of themselves ontwell
From inner fullness: chest and heart should swell
To give them birth. Better be dumb a week
Than idly prattle; better in leisure sleek
Lie fallow-minded, than a brain compel
To wasting plenty that hath yielded well,
Or strive to crop a soil too thin and bleak.
One true thought, from the deepest heart up-springing,
May from within a whole life fertilize;
One true word, like the lightning sudden gleaming,
May rend the night of a whole world of lies.
Much speech, much theught, may often be but seeming,
Bat in one truth might boundless ever lies."




Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna, should be our motto regarding both our
country and our country's tongue. HARE.

When you doubt between words, use the plainest, the commonest, the
most idiomatic. Eschew tine words as you would rouge; love simple ones
as you would native roses on your cheek. IB.

Were I mistress of fifty languages, I would think in the deep German, con-
verse in the gay French, write in the copious English, sing in the majestic Span-
ish, deliver in the noble Greek, and make love in the soft Italian. MADAME DE

Words have their proper places, just like men ;

We listen to, not venture to reprove,

I^arge language swelling under gilded domes,

Byzantine, Syrian, Persepolitan. LANDOR.

IT is a question of deep interest to all public speakers
and writers, and one which has provoked not a little
discussion of late years, whether the Saxon or the Romanic
part of our language should be preferred by those who
would employ " the Queen's English " with potency and
effect. Of late it has been the fashion to cry up the native
element at the expense of the foreign; and among the cham-
pions of the former we may name Dr. Whewell, of Cam-
bridge, and a modern Rector of the University of Glasgow,
whom De Quincey censures for an erroneous direction to
the students to that effect. We may also add Lord Stanley,
one of the most brilliant and polished speakers in the
British Parliament, who, in an address some years ago to
the students of the same University, after expressing his
surprise that so few persons, comparatively, in Great Brit-


ain, have acquainted themselves with the origin, the his-
tory and the gradual development of that mother tongue
which is already spoken over half the world, which is des-
tined to yet further geographical extension, and which em-
bodies many of the noblest thoughts that have ever issued
from the brain of man, adds: " Depend upon it, it is the
plain Saxon phrase, not the term borrowed from Greek or
Roman literature, that, whether in speech or writing, goes
straightest and strongest to men's heads and hearts." On
the other hand " the Opium-Eater," commenting on a
remark of Coleridge that Wordsworth's "Excursion" bristles
beyond most poems with polysyllabic words of Greek or
Latin origin, asserts that so must it ever be in meditative
poetry upon solemn, philosophic themes. The gamut of
ideas needs a corresponding gamut of expressions; the scale
of the thinking, which ranges through every key, exacts for
the artist an unlimited command over the entire scale of
the instrument he employs.

It has been computed, he adds, that the Italian opera
has not above six hundred words in its whole vocabulary:
so narrow is the range of its emotions, and so little are
those emotions disposed to expand themselves into any
variety of thinking. The same remark applies to that class
of simple, household, homely passion, which belongs to the
early ballad poetry. " Pass from these narrow fields of the
intellect, where the relations of the objects are so few and
simple, and the whole prospect so bounded, to the immeas-
urable and sea-like arena upon which Shakspeare careers,
co-infinite with life itself, yes, and with something more
than life. Here is the other pole, the opposite extreme.
And what is the choice of diction? What is the lexis ? Is
it Saxon exclusively, or is it Saxon by preference? So far


from that, the Latinity is intense, not, indeed, in his con-
struction, but in his choice of words; and so continually
are these Latin words used, with a critical respect to their
earliest (and where that happens to have existed, to their
unfigurative) meaning ; that, upon this one argument I
would rely for upsetting the else impregnable thesis of Dr.
Farmer as to Shakspeare's learning. . . These ' diction-
ary' words are indispensable to a writer, not only in the
proportion by which he transcends other writers as to
extent and as to subtilty of thinking, but also as to eleva-
tion and sublimity. Milton was not an extensive or dis-
cursive thinker, as Shakspeare was; for the motions of his
mind were slow, solemn, sequacious, like those of the plan-
ets; not agile and assimilative; not attracting all things
into its sphere; not multiform: repulsion was the law of
his intellect, he moved in solitary grandeur. Yet, merely
from this quality of grandeur, unapproachable grandeur,
his intellect demanded a larger infusion of Latinity into
his diction." De Quineey concludes, therefore, that the
true scholar will manifest a partiality for neither part of
the language, but will be governed in his choice of words
by the theme he is handling.

This we believe to be the true answer to the question.
The English language has a special dowry of power in its
double-headed origin; the Saxon part of the language ful-
fills one set of functions; the Latin, another. Neither is
good or bad absolutely, but only in its relation to its sub-
ject, and according to. the treatment which the subject
is meant to receive. The Saxon has nerve, terseness and
simplicity; it smacks of life and experience, and "puts
small and convenient handles to things, handles that
are easy to grasp" ; but it has neither height nor breadth


for every theme. To confine ourselves to it would be,
therefore, a most egregious error. The truth is, it is no
one element which constitutes the power and efficiency of
our noble and expressive tongue, but the great multitude
and the rich variety of the elements which enter into its
composition. Its architectural order is neither Doric,
Ionic, nor Corinthian, but essentially composite; a splendid
mosaic, to the formation of which many ancient and mod-
ern languages have contributed; defective in unity and
symmetrical grace of proportion, but of vast resources
and of immense power. With such a wealth of words at
our command, to confine ourselves to the pithy but limited
Saxon, or to employ it chiefly, would be to practice a foolish
economy, to be poor in the midst of plenty, like the
miser amid his money-bags. All experiments of this kind
will fail as truly, if not as signally, as that of Charles
James Fox, who, an intense admirer of the Saxon, at-
tempted to portray in that dialect the Revolution of 1688,
and produced a book which his warmest admirers admitted
to be meagre, dry, and spiritless, without picturesque-
ness, color, or cadence.

It is true that within a certain limited and narrow circle
of ideas, we can get along with Saxon words very well.
The loftiest poetry, the most fervent devotion, even the
most earnest and impassioned oratory, may all be expressed
in words almost purely Teutonic; but the moment we
come to the abstract and the technical, to discussion and
speculation, we cannot stir a step without drawing on
foreign sources. Simple narrative, a pathos resting upon

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Online LibraryWilliam MathewsWords : their use and abuse → online text (page 12 of 28)