Monday, June 21, 2004
Some claim that C.S. Lewis invented the word 'verbicide'. He didn't; it existed for more than a century before he used it in his Studies in Words, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967). But his analysis is incisive. He distinguishes four different methods of verbicide (pp. 7-8):
- Inflation (e.g. 'awfully' for 'very').
- Verbiage (e.g. 'significant' as an absolute, without saying what the thing described is significant of).
- Use of a word as a party banner (e.g. 'Liberal' rather than 'Whig').
- Use of a word to express approval or disapproval, rather than to describe, so that we end up with a lot of "useless synonyms for 'good' or for 'bad'."
David Orr has written an essay on verbicide well worth reading, in which he laments:
In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words. This is not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also signifies that there has been a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society. This is a national tragedy virtually unnoticed in the media. It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half century the average person has come to recognize over 1000 corporate logos, but can now recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to his or her locality.One might call this verbicide by mental starvation.
A combination of ignorance and political correctness has killed or at least wounded many a word, including the innocuous niggardly. David Howard, on the staff of Washington DC's mayor Anthony Williams, lost his job (temporarily) for saying the word in a staff meeting, and Amelia Rideau, an English major at the University of Wisconsin, was so upset at the use of the word by Professor Standish Henning that she "began to cry and stormed from the room," later demanding that the University ban the word from its classrooms.