For some time now, I have been feeling that America’s– and in fact the worlds– need for literacy is becoming more and more urgent. Increasingly, there is a separation between what people say and what they mean, possibly because they don’t pause long enough to discover what it is that they mean. In his article In Defense of Literacy, Wendell Berry makes the point that we as a nation are inadvertently destroying our own language by assigning it meaning that it was never meant to represent. He says, “We will understand the world, and preserve ourselves and our values in it, only insofar as we have a language that is alert and responsive to it, and careful of it. I mean that literally. When we give our plows such brand names as “Sod Blaster,” we are imposing on their use conceptual limits which raise the likelihood that they will be used destructively” (Berry). Berry is here pointing out that although language is one of the most effective ways of communicating with others, and even sometimes with ourselves, we can turn it against ourselves if we’re not careful. We are becoming a nation that doesn’t see any reason to consider the implications of our words, and ultimately, doesn’t see a reason to think. This careless misuse of words is more dangerous than most people could ever imagine. Our words are assigned specific definitions by us, and as long as we use them correctly, their value is maintained, and we have control over them. However, the value of a word is only what we give it. As soon as we deviate from this set definition, the word becomes something different from what it was originally meant to be. It could take on an entirely different definition, or it could, through mass misuse, lose its original definition entirely and thus be lost from our language. In other words, our words are a finite resource and we are losing our ability to control them. For example, the word “love” used to be used to give voice to extremely passionate or deep feelings, and thus, everyone knew where they stood when they used it. However, in today’s language everybody “loves” everything. They can appear to harbor strong and powerful feelings for just about anything: what they had for dinner, a new friend they just met a few minutes ago, or a T.V. show they barely tolerate. In this way, when they try to describe something that they bone-deep love, they are at a loss. They have to try to skirt around the issue and take sentences to explain what should have only taken one perfectly well-placed word. This word, created to be of service to them, has been squandered and no longer retains its value. Just in the way that too much money being put into the government renders its value useless, so does flippant usage of language decrease its worth. This language inflation demands you use more words, like paper money, to service you, and sometimes the words decrease in value enough to no longer be useful at all. Mark Twain once said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug” (Twain). And although the difference between his two examples is decidedly marked, we must heed his warning, lest we allow language to become master over us, and force us into the role of complacent inferior. In expressing ourselves we must strive for absolute perfection and precision or risk the loss of the only language we have.
*Sorry I haven’t posted for so very long! I was in Europe, then I was just generally lazy, then I was moving into college at Messiah!