Monday, July 6, 2020

Words are like people

Words are like people. There are interesting correlations between people and words. The two behave very similarly. People are rarely found in isolation. They live in makgotla, villages, cities, principalities, countries and nations. Rarely do you find a loner living in a forest or on top of a tree somewhere. That is atypical of people. Human beings are principally communal beings. We live in families. Words behave in a similar manner. Words don’t occur in isolation. They are found as part of clauses or phrases. They are part of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and large chunks such as books and reports. Words also are found certain semantic domains. For instance medical terms include hospital, doctor, nurse, injection, wound, patient, medicine, tablets, and many others. Christian religious terms include Jesus, spirit, angel, Bible, believe, belief, baptism, and convert.

Just as persons are usually found around certain kinds of people and rarely around others, words also cluster around certain words. This is in linguistics is collocation. In language we usually say strong tea & not powerful tea. We however say strong tea and not powerful tea. The word chips is usually found in the company fish in the expression fish and chips.

Some people are tall others are short. Some are ugly others are beautiful. So are* the words. There are long words and short words. There are ugly words and beautiful words. Just because a person is tall or big, that doesn’t make them the smartest, the toughest or the most educated. And so it is with words. Just because a word is long, that doesn’t make it the most challenging or the most appropriate in a situation. Some communities are full of pretentious individuals who appear important. There are also words which appear important or give a piece of writing an air of seriousness. George Orwell has struggled with this matter in his essay Politics and the English language. Here I quote from this essay extensively. He says “Words like┬áphenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate,┬áare used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.

Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i. e., e. g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard,┬áetc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation.” Richard Chenevix Trench has also grappled with the matter of words, especially how words are entered in dictionaries. He has argued that “A dictionary….is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they do or do not commend themselves to his judgment, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed. He is an historian of it not a critic… There is a constant confusion here in men’s minds.

There are many who conceive of a Dictionary as though it had this function, to be a standard of the language; and the pretensions to be this which the French Dictionary of the Academy sets up, may have helped this confusion. It is nothing of the kind” (Trench 1860: 7).

To this end, national census officers are therefore like lexicographers. They record people while lexicographers record words. Their aim is to record all people whether good or bad. They don’t just document good citizens. So do dictionary makers. They record all the words, whether good or bad. It is strange though that dictionary makers are sometimes expected to document only good words and not record rude words, insults, or obscenities. This is obviously a bizarre expectation. It would be unthinkable for a census person to document only pleasant and well behaved individuals and leave the rude, rough and the criminal. Just like people, words live breath and move and finally die. When they die and nobody uses them we no longer list them in our dictionaries. In the same way that people when they die they are no longer counted in a national census, words will only become a memory in certain people’s minds or occur in some old texts. Some words are archaic.


Read this week's paper

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