Friday, June 26, 2020

'All Words Are Good Words'

Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer about whom I know almost nothing and whose name I had never heard before Thursday when a reader sent me a brief interview with Li in which she says at least one interesting thing. Asked what book she is reading, Li replies:

A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (with regular help from the OED and Merriam-Webster). All words are good words. I find reading a dictionary the best way to befriend them at a time when they are so often abused in public life.”

And not exclusively in public life. What a pleasure it is to meet someone who is articulate and enjoys formulating interesting sentences, in writing or speech. On Thursday I spoke with an Israeli-born computer scientist about computational molecular biology and he made the well-thumbed subject of DNA/RNA/proteins interesting again with lively, precise, jargon-free language. He called it “our central dogma,” playing off an earlier religious reference. We were off and running.  

I used to think sentiments like Li’s were self-evidently universal among writers. Then I read Joyce Carol Oates. Our medium is words. We ought to have a good time playing with them, even when our ostensible subject is a solemn one. Li is exhilaratingly na├»ve: “All words are good words.” Theoretically, yes. But awesome, for instance, once reserved for the divine, now casually applied to lunch, is eternally disgraced and must be discarded. It is no longer a good word. Newly learned words are always a useful gift. Ford Madox Ford writes in Chap 7 of The March of Literature (1939):

“[I]f a man’s vocabulary is small and he employs his words in groups of three or four, the number of expressions at his disposal will be proportionately limited and in consequence he will have to use—and all his fellows will have to use—the same phrase so often that it will finally become nauseating or ridiculous.”

That’s how politicians talk and people from other walks of life who wish to be ignored. One definition of bore is someone indifferent to language, who uses and discards it like dental floss. I recently reread Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, a somewhat bruising experience. Doughty’s problem is not indifference to language but a cloying preoccupation with it. Orwell suggested that prose ought to be transparent. Doughty’s too often approached opacity – the words, that is, not their referents. Later in the same chapter, Ford writes:

“A really good style, in whatever language, must be founded on the vernacular; the nearer it can come to the common speech of the day without having a shocking, comic or gross effect, the better the style will be. Grossness, indeed, is preferable to overdelicacy for the writer who wished his work to go down to posterity. For tomorrow very often accepts words and phrases that the writer’s own day will shudder over as being vulgar neologisms.”

Ford goes on to acknowledge that neologism is “a not very attractive word.” Ford died on this date, June 26, in 1939. Though only sixty-five at the time of his death, he published more than eighty books, seven or eight of which are essential.

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

Johann Sebastian Bach also died at sixty-five, leaving us vast quantities of magnificent music to experience. I suppose that, if one has talent, self-discipline, and focus, sixty-five years is enough.