The Magic of Language

My children ask me weird questions. Some of them are uncomfortable, such as, while driving past a business near the GFP office, “What is Doghouse Leathers?” Answer: “They sell collars and leashes—(sotto voce) for people.” More recently, I noticed a new trend. “Mom, what does ‘prowess’ mean?” “Archetype?” “Pacifism?” “Delve?” It was a strange menagerie of words. At first I was simply delighted by their interest and promptly defined each word in over-exuberant detail that probably killed any love for language my boys might have had. I was so distracted by vocabulary that it wasn’t until they got to “nihilism” that I thought to ask where the words were coming from. Answer: Magic: The Gathering, a geeky fantasy game that is the card-based equivalent of D&D. Evidently, delve is an “ability” as is prowess; archetype is used in its standard form (archetype of finality, of imagination…). The game itself still makes no sense to me, but what lingered was the attentiveness the game had prompted to these lovely and valuable words. It was almost enough to make me tolerant of the endless Magic: The Gathering–themed conversations that the fourth graders have in the back of my car, and hey, certainly it’s better than the vocab they’d learn from Grand Theft Auto.

I took their curiosity as a beacon of hope in a time when the future of language is uncertain. In a grumpy post last year I spoke of some novelists’ tendency to overexplain the movements of their characters. No need for three sentences when a simple “he stepped forward” or “she bowed her head” would do. Pare it down, I said, simplify. While I stand behind this authorial advice, this isn’t to say everyone needs to write like Hemingway. On the contrary, I am a slavish devotee of unctuous words and firmly believe that rich language is an underpinning of true joy and beauty. Reading novels lush with fifty-cent words gives me rather unparalleled pleasure, and every time someone drops a meritorious or obstreperous or effluvium into ordinary conversation, my heart swells.

I’m also open to experimentation with language. Neologisms are cool. It all has its time and place. At the same time, it pains me that while our beloved English language contains over one million words, most writing and speech exhibit a paucity of them. English doesn’t have the elegance of French; it’s not as mellifluous as Italian or Vietnamese. What we have is diversity, and I want more of it. There is a lost grace and intellectualism—perhaps in contemporary society but certainly in contemporary speech—when we pare down our ideas to those we agree with and our vocabulary to what’s within reach. Politicians and online hack journalists are particular offenders. So let’s work it, flaunt it, make our speech gorgeous and effective all at the same time. After all, if we have a linguistic tent large enough to accommodate “disrespect” used as a verb (I’m still adjusting) and Twitter hashtags, there is room too for the occasional deep dive into all that is metaphorical or liminal or even breathtakingly precise. And so…

…this ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog.