Say what?

I really like words. This point may seem rather obvious considering my job, I realize, but I really and truly love words, and I like, very much, to see how people use language.  Or not use it, as I can trace my own use of the ellipsis to, well, exceptionally creative ends.  How we say what we say, or what we don't say through intentional omission, tells others a lot more about us than we may think.

I very much enjoyed, and thought I would share, the following NPR story by Geoff Nunberg.  While his commentary comes specifically from Elie Weisel's name-calling of "scoundrel" in reference to Bernie Madoff, Nunberg makes an interesting observation about how, over time, specific words lose their cultural weight and point of reference.  I freely profess, from my own academic choices, that I love the Victorians, so I was glad that Nunberg used so much of Charles Dickens.  Dickens didn't mince his words--he wasn't afraid to say how he felt, even if that meant that he really didn't like my beloved city of Philadelphia.  Still, I forgive him.  But language has the power to hurt, to do things (performative speech acts, linguistic theory developed by J.L. Austin whose book How to do things with Words is interesting, short, but incredibly dense), to express yourself, to not express yourself, to make yourself and others feel good, bad, mad, sad, glad, confused, etc.  People have favorite words, say "I hate that word!", take "g"s off of words, and sometimes misuse words (like students who use the "Thesaurus" function without regard to context--you know who you are; I've often noted it in the margin for you!).  Dr. W.C. Minor, the man who submitted more than ten thousand entries to the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.  We might not always know where words come from (the OED is incredibly helpful for this, if you're so inclined), but chances are they have an interesting story.

I'll close with a series of questions that I always ask my first-year students on the first day of class--they will consider you lucky, as you don't have to write about it unless you absolutely want to:  What are your favorite words?  Why do you like them?  Who are some authors you think use language well, or make language attractive to you?  My goal in asking these questions is to get them thinking about words they like, yes, but to also show them (or, attempt to show them) how language is something active, something to which we respond constantly and something that's incredibly powerful tool.

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