There is no doubting the power of language. Used wisely, it can inspire people to wonderful endeavours they may not have previously considered. Used unwisely or, to my mind, stupidly, you can whip up hatred and intolerance and unleash their horrors.
The gift of oratory is a wonderful one but should never be misused. History sadly is full of examples where it was and the one thing you can guarantee is the innocent suffer for it.
I am always suspicious of rhetoric (political or otherwise). I always want to ask what the person coming out with it is hoping to gain (and you just know there would be something). Having said that, this wariness is probably what inspired Tom Hanks’ recent comment about cynicism being the new default.
But it is hard not to be questioning (at least) of some of the language people use. Nor is it wrong to question. I think awareness is key here. Motivations are often mixed. I also think genuine people will never mind being questioned as they’ll understand why people would.
The only time I welcome some rhetoric is when it is used as an entertaining advertising campaign. There, at least, it is being honest. The idea is to make you part with your money but you know about it! For blurbs for books, the best of them are simple, to the point, and short but again you know the whole point is to entice you to buy the book. It is then over to you.
Putting Words into the Language
Shakespeare gave us so many phrases we now use on an everyday basis. To invent something that passes into the language is a fantastic achievement but he did this repeatedly, which is even more amazing.
I was glad Terry Pratchett’s “embuggerance” used to describe the condition that took him from the world far too soon made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. It has a wonderful sound to it, don’t you think? It’s the kind of word you can get real feeling behind!
Impact of Words in Flash Fiction
My flash fiction writing has taught me to write with precision so I’m always looking for words that make the greatest impact on a reader. It isn’t always about taking words out of a story either. For example, which of the following do you think would have the most impact on a reader?
Example A – She danced alone. Does that make you think of a lonely character?
Example B – She danced alone but the thousands watching her were amazed at her skill. Is she a lonely character now?
Ironically, yes she could be but there is the difference of clear success in her field here which does not come out from Example A. I suspect you would want to know more about the character in Example B. I know I would!
One of the things I look for when choosing a greetings card is whether the words are appropriate for the intended recipient. Is it me or are there so many sickly-sweet greeting card verses out there? I know what my late mum would have made of those – not much!
This probably is my age showing but the humorous cards are either crude (and to my mind not funny) or, again, are set at a level not appropriate for the person I’m buying for. (I do have a soft spot for the Eric the Penguin cards in Andersons though. Simple humour always works for me).
If in doubt, I go for a nice blank card and fill in my own message. You shouldn’t go wrong with that approach.
The most powerful language is simple, often uses repetition for emphasis, and seems to speak to your soul. Martin Luther King Junior’s I Have A Dream speech is a great example.
The use of language can be dangerous, of course. There are always those who feel threatened by wonderful inspiring speeches and, sadly, the speaker can pay the price for that, as Martin Luther King did. But not one word of his I Have a Dream speech is out of place. The use of repetition intensifies the impact of what he is saying.
In researching for this post, I came across the A-Z quotes on the topic of the power of language. I hope you enjoy them. I did. They are also proof, if proof was needed, the most powerful language is direct and short (music to my ears!).
And then there’s the question of “bad” language. The trouble with it is what one person considers bad, someone else will wonder what the fuss is all about. I don’t like the f-word, despite it being of Anglo-Saxon origin, because I just think it is crude (for something that is supposed to be wonderful!). That’s why I don’t use it in my fiction.
I can and do understand the use of swearing in fiction where a character is under stress. Indeed I would find it odd if there wasn’t some swearing but I am against its use as “padding” and I have come across that far too often. (To me that signals a lack of imagination).
The film, The King’s Speech, is one of those rarities where every swear word in it, including the f-word, is appropriate for the storyline. It is one of those oddities that, for stammerers, as the late King was, and dementia sufferers, music and swearing are great aids.
Nobody stammers when they swear and, of course, it releases tension, which also aids the stammerer. For dementia sufferers, songs of long ago are often clearly remembered (as was the case with my late mother. Oh and she could remember swear words too. The way the brain works here is both marvellous and strange!).
Language, I think, should be celebrated. English famously borrows, sorry, steals outright from other languages and is the stronger for it. Language can and should be used to inspire, to entertain (ideally via books and stories from my viewpoint!), and to stretch us. This is where writers are more obviously stretched as we seek to find exactly the best way of portraying our characters.
Language will always be fluid. I don’t like all of the modern additions – whoever came up with functionality will never receive a Christmas card from me (though I doubt if they’d worry) as every time I come across this “word”, I flinch – but I recognise the need for language to continue to develop.
Sometimes it may be in a way we don’t like but a language that doesn’t develop runs the risk of dying – and the same is true for literature itself. (No worries for Shakespeare on that count then! He developed language and what plays could be!).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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