As 2015 comes to a close and 2016 dawns tomorrow with its own new hopes and dreams, it’s official – the diversity and intricacies of our wonderful language have been deemed irrelevant and pronounced dead, officially.
I know this because the SAT, the admissions exam that tests students’ readiness for college all across America, has declared that rare vocabulary will no longer be needed and that the sentence-completion sections will be eliminated in 2016. Vocabulary testing will focus on using words in context, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but relegating proficiency in vocabulary to a minor role is … well, as far as I’m concerned, a sure sign that the end of civilization as we know it is nigh. And I’m pretty sure the word nigh is one of the words slowly sinking below the horizon as the new SATs greet the dawn.
But it’s not just the SATs. I also know the end is near because the Economist magazine says so. Well, it doesn’t say so in so many words exactly, but its wonderful obituary page just ran “Elegy for lost verbiage” in its “The World in 2016” edition. That page, noted for its beautiful use of words and imagery, puts the language loss that is coming in the form of a farewell party to such not-often-used-but-thoroughly-specific-and-irreplaceable words as reprobate, exacerbate, platitude, bashful, arcane and pert. Farewell to thee, lovely words, words for which there are no simpler synonyms that quite do them justice.
I always turn first thing to the inside back page of the Economist when it arrives at my house, for there the obit page will tell me in elegant prose of the loss of someone large on the world scene or sometimes a different kind of being who no one might otherwise notice were it not for the Economist’s chronicling of the passage. As an example of the latter, I mention the essay on the death in 2009 of Benson, England’s best loved carp. And this year, I can still recall with vivid memory the farewell written in October for baseball great Yogi Berra. I have read obituaries for people I had never heard of, just to learn something about them but, frankly, to inhale the language used to tell their stories.
As further proof of the power of the Economist’s obituary page, I note that there is a Facebook page, The Economist Obituary Fan Club, which opines that this page “makes life worth living.”
Ah, language. So powerful, so evocative of feeling, so declining into banality, a word which I’m sure is also doomed. Not that a fancy-schmancy word need always be deployed when a nice simple verb or adjective will do. I mean, let’s not be pretentious about it. That, too, is unbecoming. But how delicious is it to use words like verisimilitude or diaphanous or curmudgeon when they are just perfect for the situation.
Consider how some of the most revered and famous statements from history or the arts would sound if dumbed-down language was substituted:
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the attack on Pearl Harbor: “ … a date that will live on as a wicked thing.”
Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind:” “Speaking plainly, my dear, I don’t really care.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent …”
Physicist Albert Einstein: “You can’t blame that thing you can’t see but that keeps us all from falling off the face of the earth for falling in love.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “If I should keep on living or if I should die, that’s what I’m asking about.”
From the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol:” “ … Old Marley was as dead as a large piece of metal set in a door to make it strong or to make it look prettier.”
Marlon Brando’s character in “On the Waterfront”: “I coulda been a person who had a good chance of winning.”
No, no, no. We need better words, sometimes more poetic words, sometimes words we need to look up if we can’t figure them out on their own. We need all the beauty and complexity of language to communicate well, to tell the story, to verbally paint a beautiful picture or maybe just a clear picture. Let me offer the final lines from the Economist’s obituary of famed oceanic free diver Natalia Molchanova, who was presumed drowned during a deep dive in August:
“ … And her many poems showed her in love with the blue deep. She felt at one with creation there, in a sacred and primeval space. Her personality, however merry and competitive, could not get her back to the surface, she wrote; only her spirit could. Possibly, on that last dive, it felt no particular wish to.”
I rest my case.