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Opinion Pieces
April 17, 2005
Thoughts While Sitting On Top Of The Words


By Joe Klock, Sr.

Occasionally, a reader complains that he/she "can't read your (variable adjective omitted) column without having a dictionary nearby."

This suggests, with subtlety akin to that of a karate chop, that these lines tend to be seasoned with words not usually heard in casual chit-chat and interviews with rodeo cowboys.

I plead guilty as charged and am happy to note that, as far as I know, all of the protesters to date have continued to read in spite of their stated discomfort.

My reasons for avoiding hackneyed verbiage are several, but not among them is a snotty attitude of assumed superiority over those who express themselves more simply, which group includes the distinguished likes of Ernest Hemingway.

The stuffing you encounter in these columns is chosen by a humble scrivener who has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with words, the most powerful non-violent forces in human relations and the most fruitful sources of both good and evil in the world.

Potentially, our dictionaries are treasure chests of unlimited adventure and unending challenge, candy stores for the intellect and, above all, bridges between our minds and hearts and those of the other denizens of this troubled planet.

The Oxford English Dictionary, heavyweight champion of all lexicons, lists more than 600,000 entries. (Most of them, I suspect, have been used at one time or another by William F. Buckley, Jr., arguably the Sultan of Linguistic Snot.)

By contrast, Germans recognize less than a third of that total, the Russians about 130,000 words and the French 100,000. (Possible cheap shot: As to that last bunch, one of the more familiar expressions is "au secours," their USA-ward cry for help whenever their national derrieres get caught in a wringer. At most other times, they seem to treat us like an unpleasant odor.)

The average grown-up Americans, reportedly, may recognize up to 20,000 words, only 3.3% of the O.E.D. inventory, probably learned more than half of them before graduating from high school and are likely to use relatively few of them in later life.

More's the pity, that, since it deprives of them of the blessings bestowed by a rich vocabulary.

Not the least of these boons is the yardstick by which we are usually measured by newly-met strangers, prospective employers, customers and others who have the power to make our lives happier, more productive and/or more fulfilling.

To an extent that is too often underestimated, we are, in the judgment of others, pretty much the sum of what we say and write. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it (and he weren't no slouch in the lingo game): "Use what language you will, you can never say anything to others but what you are."

That's why I deplore the growing number of adults who have failed to outgrow the jargon of their childhood and pubescent years.

Although it's a struggle, I'm learning to tolerate (read "tune out") the young people whose word choices are anemic and who overuse verbal crutches such as "y'know," and "I mean," and "really," and "like," and "he/she goes" like excess mustard on a ball park frank.

And if they choose to ignore the shift key in their e-mails, so be it - so long as it doesn't morph into an inappropriate adult habit, as have so many of the aforementioned speech patterns.

I foresee, with a sense of horror, whole segments of our future population sounding like Kindergarten valedictorians and writing like fourth-grade dropouts.

I have also been criticized for offbeat wordsmithery, including the invention of some words ("maximence," for example) and the distortion of others, as in "our elected House of Reprehensibles."

I call to my defense the late/learned John Maynard Keynes, who opined that, "Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking."

The goal of my writing, besides providing me a measure of emotional catharsis, is not so much to change minds as to stimulate them, whether to agreement or dissent, and to have some fun in the process. Trite phraseology is a weak weapon in these campaigns.

If my choice of words does no greater violence to readers than driving them to their nearest Webster's Unabridged, I'll patiently await - albeit with slim hope - the gratitude they owe me for bettering their lives, while inconveniencing a scant few of the minutes thereof.

Words are priceless friends, gifted entertainers and great instructors; use 'em or lose 'em - read 'em and reap!

NOTE TO READERS: Joe’s Opinion Column is published in 178 newspapers nationwide. If you would like to receive Joe’s Opinion Column directly, you may join Joe’s "Kith & Kin" list by sending your name and e-mail address to JoeKlock@aol.com, with "SEND OPINION COLUMNS" in the subject line.

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