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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dolichocephalic: another ten dollar word

What a nice way to be told I have an egg-shaped head--dolichocephalic. That's what it means. A hundred years ago we could insult some one in grand style. Now we just say "What an egg-head." I recently watched a Lord Peter Whimsy flick. He used the term--and countless other five syllable, ten dollar words. Amusing, charming, he can insult a person with the loftiest vernacular. A florid stream of dialectical ingenuity--expertly crafted--rolled off his tongue and over his lips with silken fluidity.

Such is not the case today. How far we've sunk. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are 200,000 words in the English language (excluding jargon and slang). 200,000 actual words. The average person utilizes only 10-20,000 of them. What a sad and tragic waste. Think about it as a writer or speaker. Instead of describing a man as having a prominent forehead, you could say he looked encephalitic. Rather than the mundane "she's fat and buxom," you could say "she's zaftig." Rather than "he had unremarkable features," you could say "he had an unprepossessing countenance." Is your sister cheap? How about saying she's parsimonious? Does your antagonist have the backbone of a jellyfish? How about saying "he's pusillanimous? Or even better, a pusillanimous polecat? Oh, do the multi-syllables roll so sweetly off the tongue! At best, you'll get an A for effort and give your atrophied tongue a workout. At worst, you'll confuse the dickens out of your friends and loved ones.

The English language is one of grandeur and splendid possibility. Even as writers, we use very little of it's limitless possibility. Why? I'm told that the average Christian fiction is written at a seventh grade level--the supposition is that this will reach the greatest number of readers. Yet, something wonderful and extravagant is missing at that level of writing. Read Dorothy Sayers, or better yet, watch one of her Peter Whimsy flicks. The old classics are great examples of the glorious and well-crafted use of the English language. I celebrate their triumph and mourn the loss. We have banished lofty English usage to a disused, cobwebbed literary corner and glorified modern grammatical laziness. We aim for easy rather than quality. As a writer, this saddens me. We've sacrificed much and gained little in return.

I know of many who no longer read Christian fiction because of "a consistent lack of quality" (their words not mine). They've gravitated to secular fiction to fulfill this need. Sad. I dream of leading a grammatical revolt. One which will result in an united love for each word Oxford hides within its pages. Alas, such may never be...but I can dream, can't I?


brooke said...

i'll fight with you! onward Christian writers!

God's Girl said...

That snow trampoline looks great. My daughter would absolutely love it! : )

Jane said...

You make a very valid point - our language has taken a beating for sure and even more so, it seems, these days. Perhaps children are so used to speaking "slang" to their friends, that it also creeps into conversations at home and is incorporated into daily usage. Rather that trying to upgrade the language it has been downgraded to the point that in order to get people to read books, one has to write them at a lower level of understanding and usage.

By the way, I know several pusillanimous people! Ugh!

Weston Elliott said...

Ooh! Count me in for that revolt!!

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