I indulged myself and brought some classic writer’s references to my island. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (two volumes), Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology now clamber for space on the shelf behind my desk.
As a onetime classicist, I have a vestigial love of both the usage and the derivation of words and phrases. The shades of meaning in specific words or phrases give them power. There is a difference between the words ‘ghost’ and ‘wraith’ (despite what a certain candy bar maker may try to tell us). The perfect word gives emphasis to a phrase. It can encompass subtlety and nuance – elegant and lost arts in the day of acronyms and emojis. And it gives the writer power as the possessor of a secret always has. Language is an almost limitless playground of imagination if we merely stop and think about what we write.
Why are the words we use so important in the days of a pandemic? I have already railed against the concept of a ‘New Normal’ in lockdown, but what has become normal is inaccuracy and slipshoddiness of both thought and expression. Officials whose sole job is to explain and transmit information have taken to blurting out any old thing, as if a sound bite will be enough for people to make important decisions. This phenomenon may be as old as politics itself, but it has reached a nadir to critical effect.
In a time where both actual and fiscal lives and deaths hang on information and facts, we are presented with nothing but glib statements that mistake ‘vaccines’ for ‘antibiotics’, ‘infectivity’ for ‘virulence’, ‘prevalence’ for ‘incidence’. As a result, we cannot make even the most rudimentary sense of a complex situation. I really don’t think this is some form of Orwellian New Speak on our leaders’ part. I think it is born of ignorance (in the actual sense of the word) coupled with the lazy desire to say something (anything!) and watch the instant reaction to their statements.
There is still accuracy out there. There are people if not in positions of prominence at least adjacent to them; people who know the words and use them correctly, if we could just hear them speak. But power never comes to the soft-spoken. Most elected leaders, like Edith Nesbit’s Bell People, love the sound of their own voices. We only hope that some day they will step aside to allow subtlety, nuance or the correct usage to lead the way. Do you think there is a ghost of a chance?
[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]