Words: Definition and Analysis in English Composition

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      A word is the sign of an idea. Whether the idea be an object, a quality, an action, simple existence, or a relation, if it be communicated to another, it must have some sign; in language these signs are words. Infinitely varied are the ideas man has to express. Each day, each moment, has its new combination of circumstances; yet by the common person the effect of the novel situation is described as “horrid” or “awful” or “perfectly lovely.” Three adjectives to describe all creation! No wonder that people are constantly misunderstood; that others do not get their ideas. How can they? Do the best the master can, the thought will not pass from him to his reader without considerable deflection. He cannot say exactly what he would. His words do not hold the same meaning for him as for others. “Mother” to him is a dear woman with a gentle voice, always dressed in black, sitting by the window of home; to another she is a shrieking termagant, whose phrases are punctuated by blows. There is not a word that means exactly the same to two persons; yet with words men must express their thoughts, their feelings, their hopes, their purposes,—always changing, ever new,—and for all this shall they use but a few score of words? Words are the last, least elements of language; without these least elements, these atoms of language, no sentence, however simple, can be made; by means of them, the master drives mobs to frenzy or soothes the pain of eternal loss. The calm and peace which Emerson knew, we know; the perpetual benediction of past years which Wordsworth felt, all may feel. These thoughts masters have expressed in words, but not in three words. Thousands are not enough accurately to transfer their visions of this changing universe from them to us. Ideas infinite in their variety demand for their expression all the means which our language has placed at the disposal of the master. For this true expression the whole dictionary with its thousands of words is all too small.

Yet the knowledge of words that the student derives from the dictionary is not sufficient. When one hears an educated foreigner speak, he detects little errors in his use of words,—errors which are not the fault of definition, but errors in the idiomatic use of words.

Need of a Large Vocabulary:
      Whoever hopes to be understood must acquire a full, rich vocabulary. However clearly he may think, however much he may feel, until he has words, the thought, the emotion, must remain his alone. To get a vocabulary, then, is a person’s business. He who has it can command him who has it not. Not in literature alone, but in business,—in medicine, in law, behind the accountant’s desk or the salesman’s counter,—he is master who can say what he means so that the person to whom he speaks must know just what he means. Now it is a singular truth that when we read any great author, the words which we do not understand are remarkably few. Even in Shakespeare there are not many; and the few are unknown by reason of a constantly changing vocabulary. It was probably true then, as it would certainly be to-day, that the large majority of audiences lost not a word of his fifteen thousand, while they themselves used less than eight hundred. We know what others say; yet we say nothing ourselves. What a vocabulary one could accumulate, if from six to eighteen he added only two words a day! Twelve years, and each year more than seven hundred words! It does not look a difficult task. Children do more, and never realize the superiority of their achievement. Nine thousand words at eighteen! Shakespeare alone used more. Macaulay needed scarcely six thousand.

      Dictionary: How shall a vocabulary be accumulated? One method is by the use of a dictionary; and many persons find it a source of great pleasure. The genealogy and biography of words are as fascinating to a devoted philologist as stamps to a philatelist or cathedrals to an architect. “Canteen” is quite an unassuming little word. Yet imperious Cæsar knew it in its childhood. The Roman camp was laid out like a small city, with regular streets and avenues. On one of these streets called the “Via Quintana” all the supplies were kept. When the word passed into the Italian, it became “cantina;” and cantinas may be found among all nations who have drawn their language from the Latin. There is this difference, however: that whereas eatables were to be had in the Roman quintana, only drinkables can be found in the Italian cantina. When the English adopted the word, the middle meaning, a place where wines are stored, a wine-cellar, came to be a small flask especially fitted for the rough usage of a soldier’s life, in which a necessary supply of some sort of liquid may be carried. So the name of a street has become the much-berated canteen of the sutler and the much needed canteen of the soldier. The dictionary is full of such fascinating biographies. Still its fascination is not the reason why most people study the dictionary: it is because such a study is necessary for the person who hopes for an accurate knowledge of the words he reads. It is not impossible to know “pretty nearly what it means” from the context; but no master uses words without knowing exactly what they mean. Certainty of meaning precedes frequency of use; and this necessary confidence is gained from a study of the dictionary. In a general way we know all the words of Macaulay’s vocabulary; but the average man uses only eight hundred of them. His knowledge of words is no more than an indistinct, mumbling knowledge. To lift each word out of its context, to make it a distinct, living entity, capable of serving, the definition must be studied. Then the student knows just what service the word is fitted for, and finds a pleasure in being competent to command that service. The dictionary is a necessity to the person who hopes to use words.

Study of Literature:
      Yet the knowledge of words that the student derives from the dictionary is not sufficient. When one hears an educated foreigner speak, he detects little errors in his use of words,—errors which are not the fault of definition, but errors in the idiomatic use of words. This use cannot be learned from a dictionary, where words are studied individually, but only by studying them in combination with other words where the influence of one word upon another may be noted. There is little difference in the size of a pile of stones, whether we say a great pile of stones or a large pile of stones; but a great man is of much more consequence than a large man. A dictionary could hardly have told a foreigner this. A man may pursue or chase a robber, as the author wishes; but he may not chase a course. Prepositions are especially liable to be misused, and their correct use comes from a study of literature, not of the dictionary. The nice and discriminating refinements in the use of words are learned by careful reading. When a phrase is met, such as “the steep and solitary eastern heaven,” where each word has been born to a new beauty; or this, “And the sweet city with her dreaming spires,” where the adjectives “sweet” and “dreaming” have a richer content, they should be regarded with great care and greeted with even more delight than words entirely new. How to read that we may gain this complete mastery of words, Mr. Ruskin has best told us in “Sesame and Lilies.” Every person should know “Of Kings’ Treasuries” by reading and re-reading. Literature, the way masters have used words, will furnish a knowledge of the nicer discriminations in their use.

      The dictionary and literature are the sources of a full and refined vocabulary. But the vocabulary which may be perfectly understood is not entirely in one’s possession until it is used. Seek the first opportunity to use the newly acquired word. It will be hard to utter it; you will feel an effort in getting it out. Only once, however; after that it rises as easily as any old familiar word. Because the companion with whom you speak is always “just as mad as” she can be, is no reason why you may not at times be vexed, annoyed, aggravated, exasperated, or angry. Men are not always either “perfectly lovely” or “awful;” neither are all ladies “jewels.” There are degrees of villainy and nobility; and all jewels have not the same lustre. Know what you want to say, and find the one word that will exactly say it. This costs work, it is true; but what is there worth having which has not cost some one work? Do the work; search for the word; then use it. In this way a vocabulary becomes a real possession.

      The words which a person may use are generally described as reputable, national, and present. Words must be reputable; that is, sanctioned by the authority of the creators of English literature. They must be national; words that are the property of the mass of the people, not of a clique or a district. And they must be of the present; Chaucer’s vocabulary, though it be the source of English, will not satisfy the conditions of to-day.

Vulgarisms are not reputable:
      First, words must be of reputable use. No person would consider vulgarisms reputable. When a person says “I hain’t got none,” he has reached about the acme of vulgarisms, the language of the illiterate. Grammar has been disregarded; a word has been used which is not a word; and another word has no reason for its appearance in the sentence. Yet sometimes this expression is heard; seldom seen written. It is always set down to the account of an illiterate home; for no one can reach a high school without knowing its grammatical errors. The unerring use of don’t, me, I, lie, lay, set, and sit, is not so assured that the list can be omitted. Adjectives are used for adverbs; “real good” is not yet forgotten. Nouns are called upon to do the work of verbs. This is the language of the illiterate, and it should be avoided; for vulgarisms are not reputable.

Slang is not reputable:
      Neither is slang reputable. He would be a prude who would not recognize that slang is sometimes right to the point; and that many of our strongest idioms were originally slang. Still, although many phrases which to-day are called slang were at one time reputable, the fact of their respectable birth cannot save them from the slight imputation that now they are slang. Notwithstanding the fact that we owe some of our strongest idioms to slang, the free use of slang always vulgarizes. It generally is called upon to supply a deficiency either in thought or in the power of expression. People too lazy to think, too indolent to read, with little to say, and but a few slang phrases to say it with, may be allowed to practice this vulgarity; but cultured persons in cultured conversation will eschew all acquaintance with it. To find it in the serious composition of educated persons always raises a question of their refinement. It is the stock in trade of the lazy and the uncultured. It is used to divert attention from poverty of thought and a threadbare vocabulary. It is unnecessary for the complete expression of thought by the scholar and man of refinement.

      It is a real misfortune that many good words have been tarnished by the handling of the illiterate. “Awful,” “horrid,” and “lovely” are good words; but they have been sullied by common use. So common have they become that they approach slang. They may be rescued from that charge in each person’s writing, if he shows by accurate use of them that he is master of their secret strength.

      There is no question here of the words; they have all the freshness and vigor of their youth. Do not hesitate to use such words exactly. When the thought calls for them, they say with certainty what can be expressed only doubtfully by other words.

Words must be national:
      Provincialisms. Second, words must be of national use. They cannot be words confined to a locality. When Morris talks of a house that has been “gammoned,” he deprives a large number of readers of his meaning. “Gums” and “brasses” may be good in certain districts of England, but in literature they should not be used, for they would not generally be understood. For the same reason much of the common conversation of the South is foreign to a native of New York. Whoever employs the language of a locality limits his circle of readers to that locality. To write for all he must use the language of all; he must avoid provincialisms.

Technical and Bookish Words:
      Like words that are used by a small region are words which are understood by a clique of persons. Scholars are inclined to use a scholarly vocabulary. The biologist has one; the chemist another; the philosopher a third. This technical vocabulary may be a necessity at times; but when a specialist addresses the public, his words must be the words which an average cultured man can understand. Such words can be found if the writer will look for them; if he does not, his work can scarcely be called literature. Technical words and bookish terms are not words of national use.

Foreign Words:
      Words and phrases from a foreign language should be used only as a last resort. Bon mot, sine qua non, and dolce far niente are all very apt, and to a person like Mr. Lowell, who was intimately acquainted with many languages, they may come as soon as their English equivalents. In the case of such a person, the reason why they should not be used is that the reader cannot understand them. But when a young smatterer uses them to advertise his calling acquaintance with a language, he is but proclaiming his own lack of good taste. In his composition they are as ineffective to make it respectable as a large diamond on a gamester’s finger to make him an honored gentleman. Use the English language when writing for English-speaking people. It has the fullest, richest vocabulary in the world. It will not be found unequal to the task of expressing your thoughts.

Words in Present Use:
      Third, words should be in present use. Words may be so new that people do not know them; they may have passed out of use after years of good service. Of new words, but little can be said. The language constantly changes. New discoveries and inventions demand new words. What ones will be more than temporary cannot be prophesied. “Blizzard” and “mugwump” were new but a short time ago: the latter is dying from disuse, the former has come to stay. In this uncertainty one thing can be said, however. No word which has not secured recognition should be used by a young person, if by reputable words already in the language he can express his meaning. And just as he should not be the first to take up an untried word, so the young writer should not be the last to drop a dead one. There is at present a sort of fad for old English. A large number of words that have been resting quietly in their graves for centuries have been called forth. Some may enjoy a second life; most of them will feel only the weakness of a second obsolescence. “Foreword” and “inwit” were good once; but “preface” and “conscience” mean as much and have the advantage of being alive. To be understood use the words of the present.

Words in their Present Meaning:
      Use words in their present signification. Not only has language cast out many words; it has changed many others so that they are hardly recognized. When Chaucer wrote,

 “Ther may no man
 Mercury mortify
 But hit be with his brother knowleching,”

      “mortify” meant to make dead, to kill. To-day a lady may say she was mortified to death; but that is hyperbole. In “Paradise Lost” Satan may

 “Through the palpable obscure find out
 His uncouth way.”

      But a person to-day is not justified in using “uncouth” for “unknown.” The works of Shakespeare and Milton abound in words whose life has been prolonged to the present, but whose signification has been changed. The writer who seeks to use words with these old meanings is standing in his own light. Such use always attracts attention to the words themselves, and by so much subtracts attention from the thought.

Words of Latin and Saxon Origin:
      Words that are in good use have been divided into two classes, as they have been drawn from two sources. Some differences between Anglo-Saxon and Latin words are marked. Saxon words are generally short; Latin words long. The first are the words of home and are concerned with the necessities of life; the second are the words of the court and the adornments of polite society. The former made the foundation of our language and gave to it its idiomatic strength; the latter came later, and added to the strength of the language its grace and refinement. In our speech there can be no doubt that short words are used when the purpose is to be understood quickly, even harshly, while the longer words are frequently employed for saying unpleasant things pleasantly. Euphemism, the choice of words not harsh for harsh ideas, has its uses. It is not always wrong to say, “He was taken away” for “He was killed.” But when the plain truth is to be spoken, when, as in most composition, the object is to be understood, the words should be chosen which exactly express the thought, be those words Latin or Saxon. For any one to say, “Was launched into eternity” for “Was hanged,” or “When the fatal noose was adjusted about the neck of the unfortunate victim of his own unbridled passions” for “When the halter was put around his neck,” is a useless parade of vocabulary. One knows that such phrases are made by a writer who is ignorant of the value of words, or by a penny-a-liner, willing to sacrifice every effect of language to the immediate needs of his purse. Such writing has no power. The words are dictated by too low a motive to have any force in them. Let a writer go straight to the point as directly as the hindrances of language will allow. Even then his expression will lag behind his thought.

      This does not mean that one is to use Saxon words always. It means that one shall use the words that say exactly what is to be said, so that the reader can get the exact thought with the least outlay of attention to the words. Latin words are as common as Saxon words. To search out a Saxon word because it is Saxon and short is as reprehensible as to use the indirection of Latin words where directness is wanted. Latin words have a place; they express the finer distinctions and gradations of thought. In the discussion of any question requiring nice precision of statement Latin words are necessary.

      Latin words, moreover, have a fullness of sound which gives them an added weight and dignity. One would hesitate long before changing one of Milton’s big-sounding phrases, even if he were not compelled to sacrifice the metre. In Webster’s orations there is a dignity, a sublimity, gained by the use of full-mouthed polysyllables. Supposing he had said at the beginning of his eulogy of Adams and Jefferson, “This is a new sight” instead of “This is an unaccustomed spectacle,” the whole effect of dignified utterance commensurate with the occasion would have been lost. The oration abounds in examples of reverberating cadences. Milton’s sentences are a stately procession of gorgeous words: the dignified pomp of the advance is occasioned by the wealth of essential beauty and historical association in the individual words:—

 “That proud honor claimed
 Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
 Who forthwith from the glittering staff unfurl’d
 Th’ imperial ensign, which, full high advanc’t
 Shon like a meteor streaming to the wind,
 With gemms and golden lustre rich emblaz’d
 Seraphic arms and trophies; all the while
 Sonorous metall blowing martial sounds:
 At which the universal host up-sent
 A shout that tore Hell’s concave, and beyond
 Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.
 All in a moment through the gloom were seen
 Ten thousand banners rise into the air,
 With orient colours waving; with them rose
 A forrest huge of spears; and thronging helms
 Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
 Of depth immeasurable.” (“Paradise Lost.”)

      The choice of words does not depend on whether they are of Latin or of Saxon origin. In use it will be found that short words, like short sentences, give more directness and force to the composition; while long words have a dignified elegance and refinement of discrimination not the property of monosyllables. No one should think, however, that short words cause the force or long words cause the dignity. These qualities belong to the thought; the completeness of its expression is approached by a choice in words. Choose words for their fitness to say what you think, or feel, or purpose, having no regard for their origin.

General and specific:
      Words are also classified as general and specific. By a general word is meant a word common to or denoting a large number of ideas. By specific is meant a word that denotes or specifies a single idea. “Man,” “move,” “bad,” are general and denote a large number of ideas; while “Whittier,” “glide,” “thieving,” are specific, denoting but one man, one movement, one kind of badness. “Man” denotes the whole human race, while it implies a feeling, thinking, speaking, willing animal. “Whittier” denotes but a single person, but beside all the common qualities implied by the, word “man,” “Whittier” suggests, among other things, a homely face, serious and kind, a poet, and an anti-slavery worker.

Use Words that suggest most:
      As a principle in composition, it may be said that the more a word or phrase can be made to imply or suggest, while at the same time expressing all that the writer wishes to say, the more valuable does that word or phrase become. Yet it should be remembered that words may be so specific that they do not include all that the author wishes to include. For instance, if instead of “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the beatitude should be made to read “Blessed are the Quakers,” though this organized body of persons labor for the blessings of peace, yet the meaning would be restricted by the limited denotation of the term. It does not include enough. So in almost all of Emerson’s writing, it would not be possible to express his entire thought with more specific words. Therefore regard must always be had for the thought,—that it may be expressed in its perfect fullness and entirety. Keeping this full expression in view, those words are strongest, truest, richest, which suggest most. To say of a person that he is a bad man is one thing; that he is a traitor is quite another; but when one writes that he is a veritable Judas, words fail to keep pace with suggestions, and reason yields to emotion. Specific words, if they denote the whole idea, are as much better than general terms as their suggestion exceeds the suggestion of general terms.

Synecdoche, Metonymy:
      Much of the force of figures of speech is derived from the suggestive quality of the specific words employed. When a man calls another a dog, he has used a metaphor. He has availed himself of a term that gathers up all the snarling qualities of the worst of the dog species. The figure has high suggestive power. Synecdoche, too, that figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, employs a term of higher suggestive power for one of lower connoting force. “All hands took hold” is better than “All persons went to work.” Metonymy is the substitution of the name of one thing for that of another to which the former bears a known and close relation. The most common of these known and close relations are those of cause and its effects, of container and the thing contained, and of sign and the thing signified. “He has read Shakespeare,” “He was addicted to the use of the bottle,” “All patriots fight for the flag,” are examples of metonymy. All these figures depend in large degree for their power upon the greater suggestiveness of specific words; and their use gives to composition an efficiency and directness commensurate with the greater connoting value of the specific words.

Care in Choice of Specific Words:
      A writer should keep in mind the fact that the same word may mean widely different things to two persons. For this reason the specific word that appeals to him most may be of no value in addressing others. “Free silver” means to one set of men the withdrawal of money from investment, consequent stagnation in business, followed by the closing of factories and penury among laborers. To others it means three dollars a day for unskilled labor, fire, clothes, and something to eat. Again, if one wished to present the horrors of devastating disease, in the South he would mention yellow fever, in the North smallpox; but to a lady who saw six little brothers and sisters dead from it in one week, three carried to the graveyard on the hillside one chill November morning, all the terrors of contagious disease are suggested by the word “diphtheria.” Words are weighted with our experiences. They are laden with what we have lived into them. As persons have different experiences, each word carries to each person a different meaning. The wise writer chooses those specific words which suggest most to the men he addresses,—in general, to the average man.

      There are many words that carry some of the same suggestions to all. These words are connected with the common things of life: such words as “home,” “death,” “mother,” and the many more that have been with all people from childhood. They are simple little words crowded with experiences. Such words carry a weight of suggestion not found in strange new words. It is for this reason that simple language goes straight to the heart; it is so loaded with life. Of two expressions that convey the thought with equal accuracy, always choose the simpler.

Avoid Hackneyed Phrases:
      Much like general terms, which mean something or nothing, are expressions that have become trite and hackneyed. At some time they were accurate phrases, saying just what was needed. By being used for all sorts of purposes, they have lost the original thought of which they were the accurate expression. They have no freshness. The sounding phrases repeated in the pulpit, or the equally empty phrases of the scientist, however good they were at their inception, are, in the writing of many persons, but theological and scientific cant relied upon by ignorant people to cover up the vacuity of their thought. One’s own expression, even though it be not so elegant and graceful, is better than any worn-out, hackneyed phrase. Think for yourself; then say what you have thought in the best language you can find yourself.

“Fine Writing.”
      “Fine writing,” the subjection of noble words to ignoble service, is to be avoided. Mr. Micawber was addicted to this pomposity of language; and Dickens, by the creation of this character, has done literature a real service, by showing how absurd it is, how valueless for anything more than humor. “‘Under the impression,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road—in short,’ said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, ‘that you might lose yourself—I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.’” Here are great words in profusion to dress out a little thought. “Fine writing” is as much out of taste as over-dressing. When the thought calls for noble expression, then all one’s energies should be bent to finding noble phrases; but for common things common expressions are the only ones in good taste.

In Prose avoid Poetical Words:
      Much like “fine writing” is the use of poetical words in prose. Enow, erstwhile, besprent, methinks, agone, and thine are examples of a large class of words which, though in perfectly good taste in poetry, are in extremely poor taste in prose. They are out of place; and so attract attention to themselves, not to the thought they express. When writing prose, avoid poetical words.

      All of this comes at last to one rule: be exact, be accurate in the choice of words. Not a word that half expresses the thought, not even one that is pretty near, but the only word that exactly expresses the meaning, that word must be used. It is not a question of long or short, of Latin or Saxon, of general or specific; it is a question of accuracy or inaccuracy, the whole or a part, the whole or too much, of just right or about right. No one would entirely misunderstand the following sentence; and just as certainly no one would derive from these words the impression the author had when he wrote it. He has phrased it as follows: “Another direction in which free education is most valuable to society, is the way in which it removes the gulf affixed between the rich and poor.” The boy wanted the opening sentence to sound big, and forgot that the first use of words is accurately to express the thought. In this sentence are the commonest errors in the choice of words. “Most valuable” says more than truth; “direction” says less than truth; and “affixed” does not say anything. Had the boy studied the dictionary, had he been familiar with the Bible, had he carefully considered the figure he introduced with the word “gulf,” he would not have written this incongruous sentence; he would not have been inaccurate. Spare no pains in your effort to be exact. Search through the words of your own vocabulary; if these fall short, find others in the dictionary. Get the word that exactly expresses the thought. Let no fine-sounding or high-born word trick you into saying what you do not mean. Be master of your words; never let fine expressions enslave you. In a word, be accurate.

      Such painstaking labor has its reward not alone in the increased power of expression; there is also a corresponding growth in the ability to observe accurately and to think clearly. No man can write such descriptions as Ruskin and Stevenson have written without seeing accurately; nor can a man speak with the definite certainty of Burke without thinking clearly. The desire to be accurate in expression drives a writer to be accurate in thinking. To think is the highest that man can hope from education. Anything that contributes to this highest attainment should be undertaken with joy. Whether planning a story or constructing an argument; whether excluding irrelevant matter or including what contributes to the perfection of the whole; whether massing the material so that all the parts shall receive their due emphasis; whether relating the parts so that the thought advances steadily and there can be no misunderstanding,—in all this the student will find arduous labor. Yet after all this is done,—when the theme, the paragraphs, and the sentences contain exactly what is needed, are properly massed, and are set in perfect order,—then comes the long labor of revision, which does not stop until the exact word is hunted out. For upon words, at last, we are dependent for the expression of our observation and thought. He is most entirely master of his thoughts who can accurately express them: clearly, that he cannot be misunderstood; forcefully, that he will not be unread; and elegantly, that he give the reader joy. And this mastery he evinces in a finely discriminating choice of words.

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