Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Big Words for Small Thoughts
By Richard Grant White (1822–1885)
From ‘Words and Their Uses’

SIMPLE and unpretending ignorance is always respectable, and sometimes charming; but there is little that more deserves contempt than the pretense of ignorance to knowledge. The curse and the peril of language in this day, and particularly in this country, is, that it is at the mercy of men who, instead of being content to use it well according to their honest ignorance, use it ill according to their affected knowledge; who being vulgar, would seem elegant; who being empty, would seem full; who make up in pretense what they lack in reality; and whose little thoughts, let off in enormous phrases, sound like firecrackers in an empty barrel.

  How I detest the vain parade
  Of big-mouthed words of large pretense!
And shall they thus thy soul degrade,
  O tongue so dear to common-sense?
Shouldst thou accept the pompous laws
  By which our blustering tyros prate,
Soon Shakespeare’s songs and Bunyan’s saws
  Some tumid trickster must translate.
Our language, like our daily life,
  Accords the homely and sublime,
And jars with phrases that are rife
  With pedantry of every clime.
For eloquence it clangs like arms,
  For love it touches tender chords;
But he to whom the world’s heart warms
  Must speak in wholesome, home-bred words.
  To the reader who is familiar with Béranger’s ‘Derniers Chansons,’ these lines will bring to mind two stanzas in the poet’s ‘Tambour Major,’ in which he compares pretentious phrases to a big, bedizened drum-major, and simple language to the little gray-coated Napoleon at Austerlitz,—a comparison which has been brought to my mind very frequently during the writing of this book.  2
  It will be well for us to examine some examples of this vice of language in its various kinds; and for them we must go to the newspaper press, which reflects so truly the surface of modern life, although its surface only.  3
  There is, first, the style which has rightly come to be called “newspaper English”; and in which we are told, for instance, of an attack upon a fortified position on the Potomac, that “the thousand-toned artillery duel progresses magnificently at this hour, the howling shell bursting in wild profusion in camp and battery, and among the trembling pines.” I quote this from the columns of a first-rate New York newspaper, because the real thing is so much more characteristic than any imitation could be, and is quite as ridiculous. This style has been in use so long, and has, day after day, been impressed upon the minds of so many persons to whom newspapers are authority, as to language no less than as to facts, that it is actually coming into vogue in daily life with some of our people. Not long ago my attention was attracted by a building which I had not noticed before; and stepping up to a policeman who stood hard by, I asked him what it was. He promptly replied (I wrote down his answer within the minute), “That is an institootion inaugurated under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy, for the reformation of them young females what has deviated from the paths of rectitood.” It was in fact an asylum for women of the town; but my informant would surely have regarded such a description of it as inelegant, and perhaps as indelicate. True, there was a glaring incongruity between the pompousness of his phraseology and his use of those simple and common parts of speech, the pronouns; but I confess that in his dispensation of language, “them” and “what” were the only crumbs from which I received any comfort. But could I find fault with my civil and obliging informant, when I knew that every day he might read in the leading articles of our best newspapers such sentences, for instance, as the following?—
          “There is, without doubt, some subtle essence permeating the elementary constitution of crime which so operates that men and women become its involuntary followers by sheer force of attraction, as it were.”
  I am sure, at least, that the policeman knew better what he meant when he spoke than the journalist did what he meant when he wrote. Policeman and journalist both wished not merely to tell what they knew and thought in the simplest, clearest way; they wished to say something elegant, and to use fine language: and both made themselves ridiculous. Neither this fault nor this complaint is new; but the censure seems not to have diminished the fault, either in frequency or in degree. Our every-day writing is infested with this silly bombast, this stilted nonsense. One journalist reflecting upon the increase of violence, and wishing to say that ruffians should not be allowed to go armed, writes, “We cannot, however, allow the opportunity to pass without expressing our surprise that the law should allow such abandoned and desperate characters to remain in possession of lethal weapons.” Lethal means deadly, neither more nor less; but it would be very tame and unsatisfying to use an expression so common and so easily understood. Another journalist, in the course of an article upon a murder, says of the murderer that “a policeman went to his residence, and there secured the clothes that he wore when he committed the murderous deed”; and that being found in a tub of water, “they were so smeared by blood as to incarnadine the water of the tub in which they were deposited.” To say that “the policeman went to the house or room of the murderer, and there found the clothes he wore when he did the murder, which were so bloody that they reddened the water into which they had been thrown,” would have been far too homely.  5
  But not only are our journals and our speeches to Buncombe infested with this big-worded style,—the very preambles to our acts of legislature, and the official reports upon the dryest and most matter-of-fact subjects, are bloated with it. It appears in the full flower of absurdity in the following sentence, which I find in the report of a committee of the Legislature of New York on street railways. The committee wished to say that the public looked upon all plans for the running of fast trains at a height of fifteen or twenty feet as fraught with needless danger; and the committeeman who wrote for them made them say it in this amazing fashion:—
          “It is not to be denied that any system which demands the propulsion of cars at a rapid rate, at an elevation of fifteen or twenty feet, is not entirely consistent, in public estimation, with the greatest attainable immunity from the dangers of transportation.”
  Such a use of words as this, only indicates the lack as well of mental vigor as of good taste and education on the part of the user. “Oh,” said a charming, highly cultivated, and thorough-bred woman, speaking in my hearing of one of her own sex of inferior breeding and position, but who was making literary pretensions, and with some success as far as notoriety and money were concerned,—“Oh, save me from talking with that woman! If you ask her to come and see you, she never says she’s sorry she can’t come, but that she regrets that the multiplicity of her engagements precludes her from accepting your polite invitation.”  7
  The foregoing instances are examples merely of a pretentious and ridiculous use of words which is now very common. They are not remarkable for incorrectness. But the freedom with which persons who have neither the knowledge of language which comes of culture, nor that which springs spontaneously from an inborn perception and mastery, are allowed to address the public and to speak for it, produces a class of writers who fill, as it is unavoidable that they should fill, our newspapers and public documents with words which are ridiculous, not only from their pretentiousness, but from their preposterous unfitness for the uses to which they are put. These persons not only write abominably in point of style, but they do not say what they mean. When, for instance, a member of Congress is spoken of in a leading journal as “a sturdy republican of progressive integrity,” no very great acquaintance with language is necessary to the discovery that the writer is ignorant of the meaning either of progress or of integrity. When in the same columns another man is described as being “endowed with an impassionable nature,” people of common-sense and education see that here is a man not only writing for the public, but actually attempting to coin words, who, as far as his knowledge of language goes, needs the instruction to be had in a good common school. So again, when another journal of position, discoursing upon convent discipline, tells us that a young woman is not fitted for “the stern amenities of religious life,” and we see it laid down in a report to an important public body that under certain circumstances, “the criminality of an act is heightened, and reflects a very turgid morality indeed,” it is according to our knowledge whether we find in the phrases “stern amenities” and “turgid morality” occasion for study or food for laughter.  8
  Writing like this is a fruit of a pitiful desire to seem elegant when one is not so, which troubles many people, and which manifests itself in the use of words as well as in the wearing of clothes, the buying of furniture, and the giving of entertainments; and which in language takes form in words which sound large, and seem to the person who uses them to give him the air of a cultivated man, because he does not know exactly what they mean. Such words sometimes become a fashion among such people, who are numerous enough to set and keep up a fashion; and they go on using them to each other, each afraid to admit to the other that he does not know what the new word means, and equally afraid to avoid its use, as a British snob is said never to admit that he is entirely unacquainted with a duke.  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.