Image credit: Olivetti “Valentine” typewriter, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, Australia, via Google Arts & Culture
Jan. 3, 2020 | 10:10am ET
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to clean out my old filing cabinets. Yes, those hulking beige metal drawers, full of manila folders stuffed with musty, tattered, tea-colored photocopies.
I started the cleanup, but I didn’t get too far before I stumbled on something I thought I should show you.
These are the first two columns I ever wrote, back when I was 21 and a senior in college. I hadn’t read them in decades until this week; I’d forgotten they even existed. Much to my surprise, they strike me as not bad.
Mind you, writers are notoriously poor judges of the quality of their own work. That applies not just to hacks like me, but to the world’s greatest literary masters. If I remember correctly, William Faulkner regarded the unreadable Pylon as one of his best novels, while Tolstoy renounced War and Peace and Anna Karenina late in his life.
So I don’t know if these are any good. But I enjoyed finding and reading them. Maybe you will too.
I do know that my belief in the supreme importance of language and in the moral duty to treat it with respect hasn’t changed in all these decades. As I’ve written elsewhere:
Most people handle words as if they were pennies: light, cheap, dispensable. Instead, I want you to handle them as if they were manhole covers or 45-pound weights in the gym. Think before you pick them up. Look before you put them down. Make sure you choose the right one and put it in the right place. Words shouldn’t be cheap to you and interchangeable. They should be dear to you and fit-for-purpose.
I’d write these columns more calmly today — the word co-equal doesn’t set me off the way it used to, and the use of so as an intensifier no longer bugs me — but I’d still be motivated by the same spirit and take a similar approach nearly 40 years later. Language is like magic, music, medicine, or dynamite: It can amaze and inspire and heal and kill, and we all should handle it with great care and with the utmost respect for its powers. We should always write mindfully.
[Note: Evidently I wrote four of these columns. I have only the first two: one as published, the second as a typed final draft.]
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Dec. 4, 1980
Last year an Ivy League student began telling me a story. “This,” she said, “is so incredible you won’t believe it.” She was right, of course; I didn’t believe it. The story itself was credible enough, but that first sentence was indeed unbelievable.
The fact that the student was from Brown and not Columbia is hardly reassuring. That preposterous sentence still came from the mouth and mind of someone who certainly should have known better. Something is wrong with the English language when educated people abuse it so thoughtlessly.
Examples are everywhere; some of them are amazing. How can anyone use a word like “coequal” and retain faith in his sanity? I imagine a definition like this: “A, which is equal to itself, is equal to B, which is equal to itself and A. And vice versa.” Perhaps in a world where only the loudest shouts can be heard, no one can continue to believe in the vital force of words. People are afraid to let words speak for themselves; a new kind of grammar says everything twice, as if the innate meaning of a word is no longer enough. “Unique,” which once meant “the only one,” has become “very unique,” or the only, only one. “Excellent” has become “so excellent”; it once meant “extremely good” — now it must mean “so” extremely good. And so it’s a short climb to “so incredible you won’t believe it,” which of course means unbelievably unbelievable.
I am writing a column on words not from a position of superiority — since I have made worse errors than my friend from Brown — but because I think about words a great deal, even when I may be abusing them. Thinking about something means taking it seriously; and thinking about language is the first step on the long road toward coherence and creative expression.
My goal in writing this column will be to force you to think about language. I believe that using words thoughtlessly is dangerous: First, because stupid words and phrases impoverish the language and constrict our lives; second, because passive acceptance of words is politically dangerous as well. The Big Lie will be most readily accepted by those who never question the meaning, virtue, and usage of words.
Our lives are governed as much by words as by governments, and yet most people pay even less attention to language than they do to politics. I think that’s unfortunate, since we have more control over words than we do over Washington. If this column succeeds, it will simply make you more conscious of that control.
2020-01-02 11-41 [PDF]
Our language is retreating from emotion. In the Me Generation, words are reflecting the inward turning of our nerves, and I’m sure that the use of “into” has spread so fast because it expresses deep involvement in a shallow, almost primitive manner. “I’m into it” substitutes for “I like it” or “I love it,” phrases that convey sincere emotion. And we seldom say we love people anymore; we have “relationships” with them. Don’t relationships lose something from the knowledge that people also have a relationship to weeds, concrete, sulfur dioxide, and every other object in the universe? Love is a conscious act of human and humane volition; relationship is a quality of even the most inanimate things.
I think there is danger in this retreat. The expressiveness of words is vital to the expression of emotions; it is fully possible that, if the wordÂ love atrophies, the emotion of love may shrink with it. The day could come when we will “relate” to everything and love no one.
Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating the link between words and reality should look back at Nazi Germany, where words played a central role in making genocide acceptable. Alex Bein’s study “The Jewish Parasite” shows how an endless repetition transformed mere words into a new “reality.” After endlessly hearing that Jews “were” bacteria, vermin, parasites, viruses, insects, and worms, the SS men and the German people in general, sincerely believed it. Nazi propaganda was able to transform murder into something that bothered no one’s conscience; what we now call genocide they called “sanitation.” More recently, Vietnamese villages were “mopped up,” as if cookie crumbs and dust balls were being removed from the jungle floor. When it is perverted, language rides the first horse of the Apocalypse.
Seen in this light, using language precisely — defending words from dehumanization — becomes a sacred duty. Words must be taken seriously; they have the power to kill and maim. Don’t say “it can’t happen here”; a hundred-million people have been slaughtered in the 20th century, and they said it too, even while the tyrants were stockpiling words next to missiles. Being “into” a “relationship” numbs people just a little bit more to the saving and the killing power of the word. We must never for a moment forget that Hitler was an orator long before he was Fuhrer.
For further reading:
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Jason Zweig, The Little Book of Safe Money
Articles and other research: