You are on page 1of 19

Words About

Someone was drawing water and my teacher
placed my hand under
the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one
hand she spelled into
the other the word _water_, first slowly, then
rapidly. I stood
still, my whole attention fixed on the motion of
her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness
as of something forgotten -- a thrill of
returning thought; and somehow the mystery of
language was
revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r"
meant that wonderful cool something that was
flowing over my hand. That living word
awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it
-- Helen Keller, American deaf-blind writer, _The Story of
My Life_, 1902

Good communication is stimulating as black coffee, and
just as hard to sleep after.
-- Anne Morrow Linbergh, American aviator and writer, _Gift
the Sea_, 1955

The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful
potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it
seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of
His creations when He made him.
-- Jose Ortega y Gasset, Spanish philosopher and critic, _The
Dehumanization of Art_, 1925

Metaphor evokes both conscious and subconscious
responses and produces, more fully than do logic and
common sense, an
awareness of the implicit connectedness of things.
-- Robert Grudin, American academic and writer, _Time and
the Art of Living_, 1982

Euphemisms are not, as many young
people think, useless verbiage for that
which can and should be said bluntly;
they are like secret agents on a delicate
mission, they must airily pass by a
stinking mess with barely so much as a
nod of the head, make their point of
constructive criticism and continue on in
calm forbearance. Euphemisms are
unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic
-- Quentin Crisp, English writer and actor,
_Manners from Heaven_, 1984

Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but
principally by catchwords.
— Virginibus Puerisque, 1881
Obsolete, adj. No longer used by the timid. Said
chiefly of words. A word which some lexicographer
has marked obsolete is ever thereafter an object
of dread and loathing to the fool writer, but if it is
a good word and has no exact modern equivalent
equally good, it is good enough for the good
Indeed, a writer's attitude toward "obsolete"
words is as true a measure of his literary ability as
anything except the character of his work. A
dictionary of obsolete and obsolescent words
would not only be singularly rich in strong and
sweet parts of speech; it would add large
possessions to the vocabulary of every competent
writer who might not happen to be a competent
-- Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer, _The
Devil's Dictionary_, 1911

Belladonna, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in
English a deadly poison. A striking example of the
essential identity of the two tongues.
-- Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer, _The
Devil's Dictionary_, 1911

He writes the worst English that I have
ever encountered. It reminds me of a
string of wet sponges; it reminds me of
tattered washing on the line; it reminds
me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of
dogs barking idiotically through endless
nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur
creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark
abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to
the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble
and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is
balder and dash.
-- H. L. Mencken, American editor, satirist, and
philologist, on Warren G. Harding, _The Baltimore
Evening Sun_, 1921

As advertising blather becomes the nation's normal
language becomes printed noise.
-- George F. Will, American political columnist and writer,
quoted in "The New York Public Library Book of
Twentieth Century American Quotations," Stephen
Donadio ed., 1992

Bad language is so much the norm these days
that there's virtually nothing said in public that if
speaker and listener, writer and reader were
honest and socially secure, couldn't be moved
downwards towards a modest simplicity. The
simple is carefully shunned by those who labour
to seem what they would be.
-- Paul Fussell, American writer and historian, _BAD, or the
Dumbing of America_, 1991
In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when
there is misunderstanding about words, but when
silence is not understood.
-- Henry David Thoreau, American essayist and poet, _A
Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers_, 1849

Our language is a rich one, indeed, the richest in creation, 
and a privilege to know. It is ever­changing, ever­expanding, 
with the current lexicon like an ever­rolling conveyor belt, 
moving words from invention to burial with languorous 
 ­­ Simon Winchester, English author, Foreword to Erin McKean, 
_Weird and Wonderful Words_, 2002

The noises of the human race are indeed a
chattering Babel, a
confusion of tongues. Such abounding
diversity is at once a challenge
to those minds which seek ordered simplicity
in the world, and at
the same time a collectors' paradise.
-- J. R. Firth, English linguist, _Alphabets and
Phonology in India and
Burma_, 1936
The science of language has large and close analogies in geological science,
with its ceaseless evolution, its fossils, and its numberless submerged layers
and hidden strata, the infinite go-before of the present.
--Walt Whitman, American poet, _Slang in America_, 1892

Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every
dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted
composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the
largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is
indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of
its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history
of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to
date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds.
-- Walt Whitman, American poet, _Slang in America_, 1892

Slang ... is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes
eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up,
mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently
-- Walt Whitman, American poet, _Slang in America_, 1892

Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its
hands, and goes to work.
-- Carl Sandburg

There is no complete language, no language which can
express all our ideas and all our sensations; their shades
are too numerous, too imperceptible. Nobody can make
known the precise degree of sensation he experiences.
One is obliged, for example, to designate by the general
names of love and hate a thousand loves and a thousand
hates all different from each other; it is the same with our
pleasures and our pains. Thus all languages are, like us,
-- Voltaire, French essayist, critic, playwright, and historian,
_Philosophical Dictionary_, 1764

Our idea of boredom -- ennui, tedium, monotony, lassitude,
mental doldrums -- has been a modern invention. The word
_boredom_ barely existed even a century ago. To _bore_ meant,
at first, something another person could do to you, specifically by
speaking, too long, too rudely, and too irrelevantly. Boredom as
silence, as emptiness, as time unfilled -- was such a mental state
even possible? Samuel Johnson, in the 18th century, tried hard to
believe it was not, for curious creatures such as ourselves:
"To be born in ignorance with a capacity of knowledge," he wrote,
"and to be placed in the midst of a world filled with variety,
perpetually pressing upon the senses and irritating curiosity, is
surely a sufficient security against" -- here no simple word came
to his mind -- "the languishment of inattention."
-- James Gleick, American writer, _Faster_, 1999

Why is language change so important? Quite
simply, because language isn't just about
communicating - language is also about how we
think of things. Our concepts are bound up in
language, and as new terms and new uses arise,
so do our ways of understanding. When we learn a
new word and make it ours, we do more than just
add it to our store of terms. We understand the
world differently, either a tiny little bit or, in the
case of some words, dramatically. The first time
we heard the word "astronaut," our entire world-
view was affected. The same is true, in a different
way, of the first time we understood what
"downsizing" meant.
-- Neil Randall, Canadian author and academic,
_Lingo Online: The Language of the Keyboard
Generation_, 2002

It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial
repositories, put together well after the languages they
define.The roots of language are irrational and of a
magical nature.
-- Jorge Luis Borges, Argentinian poet, short-story writer,
and essayist, _El otro, el mismo_, 1969

Whence the authority of dictionary-makers to decide what's OK and
what isn't? Nobody elected them, after all. And simply appealing to
precedent or tradition won't work, because what's considered correct
changes over time. In the 1600s, for instance, the second-singular
pronoun took a singular conjugation--"You is." Earlier still, the
standard 2-S pronoun wasn't you but thou. Huge numbers of now
acceptable words like clever, fun, banter, and prestigious entered
English as what usage authorities considered errors or egregious
slang. And not just usage conventions but English itself changes over
time; if it didn't, we'd all still be talking like Chaucer. Who's to say
which changes are natural and which are corruptions?
--David Foster Wallace, American novelist and essayist, "Tense Present,"
_Harper's Magazine_, April 2001

If Dictionaries are to be the Arbiters of language, in
which of them shall we find _Neologism_. No matter.
It is a good word, well sounding, obvious, and
expresses an idea which would otherwise require
circumlocution. ...
I am a friend to _Neology_. It is the only way to give
to a language copiousness and euphony. Without it
we should still be held to the vocabulary of Alfred or
of Ulphilas.
-- Thomas Jefferson, American politician, statesman, and
writer, letter to John Adams, 1820

Mark Twain
There is nothing you can say in answer to a
compliment. I have been complimented myself a
great many times, and they always embarrass me
— I always feel that they have not said enough.
— Mark Twain's Speeches, 1907

The difference between the almost right word and
the right word is really a large matter — 'tis the
difference between the lightning bug and the
The right word may be effective, but no word was
ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.
— Mark Twain's Speeches

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because
Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth
— Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar
A classic — something that everybody wants to
have read and nobody wants to read.
— Speech, 1900

Read what you like, because you like it, seeking
no other reason and no other profit than the
experience of reading. ... That which suits your
purpose is best, ...for happiness, pleasure, joy,
prefer to come unawares; they are shy of pursuit
and resentful in captivity.
-- Holbrook Jackson, English writer and critic, _The
Anatomy of Bibliomania_, 1930

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule
about what one
should read and what one shouldn't. More than
half of modern culture depends on what one
shouldn't read.
-- Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright, poet, and novelist,
Importance of Being Earnest_, 1895

A truly great book should be read in youth,
again in maturity, and once more in old age,
as a fine building should be seen by morning
light, at noon, and by moonlight.
-- Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, essayist,
and playwright, _The Enthusiasms of Robertson
Davies_, 1989

The love of language is the love of truth, and this
brings one into conflict with authority, since
power employs deceit and is so fond of it --
Rexroth said: "The accepted official version of
anything is most likely false ... all authority is
based on fraud" -- but the love of language is a
fundamental connection to our fellows and is a
basis of true civility.
-- Garrison Keillor, American writer and humorist, _Good
Poems_, 2002

True eloquence I find to be none but the serious and hearty
love of truth; and that whose mind soever is fully possessed
with a fervent desire to know good things, and with the
dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them into others,
when such a man would speak, his words, by what I can
express, like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about
him at command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish,
fall aptly into their places.
-- John Milton, English poet and essayist, _Apology for
Smectymnuus_, 1642

Words are the meeting points at which
regions of experience which can never
combine in sensation or intuition, come
together. They are the occasion and the
means of that growth which is the mind's
endless endeavor to order itself. That is
why we have language. It is no mere
signalling system. It is the instrument of
all our distinctively human development,
of everything in which we go beyond the
other animals.
-- I. A. Richards, English literary critic and
educator, _The Philosophy of Rhetoric_, 1936

Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum
of truth, and the root function of language is to
control the universe by describing it.
-- James Baldwin, American writer, _Notes of a
Native Son_, 1955

One of the most important and effective uses of
language is the emotional. It is also, of course,
wholly legitimate. We do not talk only in order to
reason or to inform. We have to make love and
quarrel, to propitiate and pardon, to rebuke, console,
intercede, and arouse.
-- C. S. Lewis, British writer, _Studies In Words_, 1960

From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of
any good new book on American usage. It is that the people
who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people
who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the
finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir.

The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of
American citizens who actually care about the current status of
double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who
watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire's
column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people
who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering
superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE--10 ITEMS OR LESS, or
hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the
Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the
meaning of suppurate.

There are lots of epithets for people like this--Grammar Nazis,
Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was
raised with is SNOOT. The word might be slightly self-mocking,
but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can
be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means
and doesn't mind letting you know it.
-- David Foster Wallace, American novelist and essayist,
"Tense Present," _Harper's Magazine_, April 2001

When a scientist considers all the high-tech mental machinery
needed to arrange words into ordinary sentences, prescriptive rules
are, at best, inconsequential little decorations. The very fact that
they have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural
workings of the language system.
One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no
more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats
at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.
-- Steven Pinker, Canadian psycholinguist, _The Language Instinct_ , 1994

Shifts in terms have an unfortunate side effect. Many people who
don't have a drop of malice or prejudice but happen to be older or
distant from university, media and government spheres find
themselves tainted as bigots for innocently using passê terms such
as "Oriental" or "crippled." Arbiters of the changing linguistic
fashions must ask themselves whether this stigmatization is really
what they set out to accomplish.
-- Steven Pinker, Canadian psycholinguist, _The New York Times_, 1994

Comedy: The least controllable use of language
and therefore the most threatening to people in
-- John Ralston Saul, Canadian essayist, novelist, and
_The Doubter's Companion_, 1994

Far from being vulgar or frivolous or both, wordplay is a
complex literary device permitting a richer response to
language. Skillfully deployed, the pun does not bandy words,
but bandages together (it arises, after all, from a linguistic
accident) disparate meanings. Its vivacious, sometimes
pugnacious presence warns the reader against taking the
text at face value.
-- Gary Egan, "Wordplay" from _Verbatim _, Erin McKean ed.,

Every poet knows the pun is Pierian, that it springs from
the same soil as the Muse ... a matching and shifting of
vowels and consonants, an adroit assonance sometimes
derided as jackassonance.
-- Louis Untermeyer, American poet and anthologist, _Bygones_,
A pun is itself a second thought, overlaid on
or coexisting with a first meaning. In terms
of status, puns remain, as ever, in a kind of
limbo, practiced everywhere by Tom, Dick,
and Henrietta, but most often shamefacedly,
whereas my unshakable conviction is that
all puns, marvellous or godawful, should be
intended -- even subconsciously -- and
spoken with pride.
-- Walter Redfern, English writer and
academic, _Puns_, 1984

A punster is a person who shticks by his word.
-- Ron Wolfe, American journalist, _Arkansas
November 8, 1995

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap
crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to
make music that will melt the stars.
-- Gustave Flaubert, French novelist, _Madame Bovary_, 1857

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without
thoughts never to heaven go.
--William Shakespeare, English playwright and poet, _Hamlet_, 1601

A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or
a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an
effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where the
emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the
--Robert Frost, American poet, _letter_, 1916

Today's language is the result of an interminable series of small
blunders, one after another, leading us back through a near
infinity of time. The words are simply let loose by all of us,
allowed to fly around out there in the dark, bumping into each
other, mating in crazy ways, producing wild, random hybrids,
beyond the control of reason.
--Lewis Thomas, American doctor and essayist, _The Medusa and the Snail_,

The things I like best in T. S. Eliot's poetry, especially in the _Four
Quartets_, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they
are there, laying out the connections between the images and the
ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few
lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through
woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road
ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment,
catching your breath.

-- Lewis Thomas, American doctor and essayist, _The Medusa and the Snail_,

Sunday: this satisfied procession
Of definite Sunday faces;
Bonnets, silk hats, and conscious graces
In repetition that displaces
Your mental self-possession
By this unwarranted digression.

Evening, lights, and tea!
Children and cats in the alley;
Dejection unable to rally
Against this dull conspiracy.

And Life, a little bald and gray,
Languid, fastidious, and bland,
Waits, hat and gloves in hand,
Punctilious of tie and suit
(Somewhat impatient of delay)
On the doorstep of the Absolute.

-- T. S. Eliot January 1910

Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and
hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have
taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the
beauty of incantation.
--T. S. Eliot, American poet and playwright, _Choruses
from 'The Rock'_, 1934

Where do words come from?
From what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths
-- Venus Khoury-Ghata, Lebanese poet and novelist,
_Words_, 2003

All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.
-- W. B. Yeats, Irish poet and dramatist, _Where
My Books Go_, 1892

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
-- Wallace Stevens, American poet, Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird, 1923

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening -- any evening -- would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.
-- C. S. Le wis, Br itish wr it er , "A Co nf es sion " ( re: T .S. Elio t's "T he
Love So ng of J . Alfr ed Prufrock" ), 1964

'Tis strange -- but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than
--Lord Byron, British poet, _Don Juan_, 1819

Once I lost a preposition.
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair.
And angrily, I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there!"

Correctness is my _vade mecum_,
And dangling phrases I abhor.
But still I wonder, what should he come
Up from out of in under for?
-- Morris Bishop, American linguist, _The New
Yorker_, 1947