Ever since he changed his major from pre-medicine to English 30 years ago, BYU Professor Stephen Tanner has been fascinated by the power of words. In an intriguing Phi Kappa Phi Faculty lecture at BYU, he outlined the diverse nature of that power and the tendency of our society to dilute it.
Suggesting that the way something is said is as important as what is said, Tanner referred to William Hazlitt, the 19th century British essayist who publicly described how Samuel Johnson once lifted a prostitute from the gutter and carried her home. The audience tittered at the image of this respectable man doing such a thing.Then Hazlitt quieted them and made an instant, forceful point by saying simply, "I remind you of the good Samaritan."
The power of words.
Yet we often do not use it, sometimes because we do not know the names of ordinary things. We lose precision, says Tanner, if we cannot describe directly the gizmos, thingamajigs and whatchamacallits that surround us.
Precision is lost in speed reading, which downplays words, Tanner says.
Quoting literary critic William Gass, Tanner describes the way a speed reader "drops diagonally down across a page, on a slant like a skier, cutting across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage - looking for the kernal or the gist."
Unfortunately, the "meaning floats over the page like fluffy clouds."
According to Tanner, there is no other way to build an effective vocabulary than the slow way, requiring "attentive listening and thorough, wide-ranging reading . . . a respect for words that engenders genuine curiosity about them and satisfaction in seeing them used accurately and responsibly."
Exaggeration produces irresponsibility with words - a form of linguistic pollution.
An example, says Tanner, is found in the recent Persian Gulf crisis, which "has produced astonishing new highs in inflated rhetoric. Middle Eastern Moslems call us the Great Satan; our president claims Saddam Hussein is worse than Hitler."
When threatened with jail, Luther Campbell of the rap group 2 Live Crew angrily said, "Our environment is slowly being pulled apart, and we put people in jail for a bunch of words."
Tanner thinks Campbell doesn't realize that our language environment is as subject to pollution as our natural environment with potentially grave consequences.
Tanner told me "there are funny parallels in city gangs that murder or rape women and call it fun and exciting. I'm not saying that these songs actually cause such violence, but there is a common thread in what some of that music says and that kind of disrespect for women."
Tanner also calls attention to the abuse of words through slang and all-purpose fad words, "you know, like when I think something is, like really neat, I go, `cool, Dude, totally awesome.' "
Tanner predicts clearance sales soon on "awesome" and says a word like "cool," which can be applied to anything from ragged jeans to President Gordon B. Hinckley's conference talk, is the linguistic equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger - nutritionally doubtful and served up uniformly to all tastes. It's the American way: "one hamburger, indistinguishable, with mustard and ketchup for all."
The trouble with words such as "special," he says, "is that they are too easily substituted for meaningful specifics and distinctions. They are cheap ready-made garments off the racks in contrast to a carefully tailored garment designed for a specific purpose."
When I asked Tanner what we should do about it, he said, "It might make a difference if some value were placed on young people expressing themselves with some lucidity and grace.
"As it is, they are not rewarded for it. In fact, if a student tries to improve his vocabulary he is usually chided for it. He is made to feel that he is being phony. I've wondered what would happen if, when people say, `and stuff and you know what I mean' if we said, `No - I don't know what you mean.' "