No, it doesn’t make sense. Let me explain …
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a television programme about the assassination of President Kennedy. A clip of original footage from 1963 showed an interviewer, in Britain, stopping passers-by, seeking their views. Doing ‘vox pops’, as they’re called nowadays. From the Latin, ‘vox populi,’ meaning voice of the people.
Filmed in black and white, in a drab city street, the interviewees were serious-looking, well-dressed adults. Men in hats, women with shopping bags over their arms. All wearing coats to their knees. The kind of people you see in 1940s films, like ‘Brief Encounter’. Or The Third Man (my favourite old film).
But there was something very unusual about the people in these interviews, to ears more used to contemporary vox-pops.
These were the kind of people often referred to as, ‘ordinary decent, working-class folk’.
And, what stuck out like a sore, red thumb among the black, white and grey was … the way they spoke.
Not their accents, but the words they used.
They used Big Words.
A few mornings later, over breakfast, we were listening to the radio – BBC radio – when the reporter used the word ‘coruscating’ before moving on to talk about a ‘modus operandi’.
It was unusual enough that the two of us stopped with our spoons (porridge with added raisins and cinnamon) part way to our mouths.
‘Blimey,’ I said, not being very articulate at 6.45 am.
The absent-minded professor nodded and raised his eyebrows.
We listen to ‘Today’ each morning as we drink our early-morning cuppas. Aired between 6 am and 9 am, it’s the programme the media, politicians and businesspeople can’t afford to ignore.
Financial results announcements and political press releases are timed to ensure coverage. It holds leaders to account, probes business news, reports scientific breakthroughs. It’s not unknown for the Prime Minister to be grilled in the big-hitter slot, just after eight o’clock.
All this makes it doubly – triply – disturbing that we were so shocked to hear a reporter use the word ‘coruscating.’
Words can, of course, be used to exclude us. Or to obscure what’s being said. Sometimes it’s intentional – and sometimes not. Academics are among the worst offenders.
This morning I had to look up ‘ontological’ for the umpteenth time. It’s such a nebulous word that I can never quite pin it down. I’m sure people use it just because they, themselves, don’t really know what they mean.
Or perhaps because they do know what they mean, but they think it sounds too simple.
But back to the radio.
I’m wondering how it’s happened, this ‘reduction’ of popular language.
As one who grew up to value words and meanings, to understand their usage so that other people would understand me in turn, I find it perplexing. Bamboozling. Depressing.
One of the things I love about Liverpool – widely regarded as a non-conformist kind of place, but not particularly associated with erudition despite several rather good higher education establishments – is a sign near the city centre.
Anyone driving to a match at one of the two big football grounds will see it.
The sign reads ‘football stadia’. Not stadiums, stadia.
The BBC no longer lets its presenters do the plural thing with stadium. Or forum. Or any of those ummy words. But Liverpool does it.
Latin, I do realise, is far from being a familiar language to most people. But we used to say things like memoranda, not so very long ago, without too much trouble.
And then there’s phenomenon/phenomena, criterion/criteria – I never did Greek and I can handle that, it’s not that tough.
If you read stuff, listen to stuff, you get the hang of it.
In all the debate about dumbing down – which I usually ignore, assuming things are just different, not dumber – I never noticed quite how obvious this simplification of language had become.
Not until I saw those articulate, well-dressed, well-mannered people, back in black-and-white television-land, speaking like – there’s no other way of putting it – well-educated people.
A recent article in the New Scientist discussed research that shows we understand and remember better if we learn to write by hand rather than by typing. That we remember more and have a more in-depth understanding of what we’re reading if we read a book as opposed to an electronic device.
Do we need to be concerned?
What use is memory if everything’s instantly look-up-able?
Why use long words, long sentences, if no one understands or remembers them?
So here we are. Shorter words. Shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs. (Yes, I’ve adapted to all that).
Shorter books (not yet), shorter attention spans. Sorry? What was that?
It makes me wonder, will we all talk binary, one day, because anything else is just too hard?
Coruscating post… I had to Google “coruscating” so I could say that!
I had to look up “ontological” too, and I’m even less likely to use that.
“Modus Operandi” I’m familiar with, and have my doubts regarding the New Scientist research findings re book reading vs electronic devices… I read both and can’t say I believe there’s noticeable variance in my retention, nor writing something by hand vs keyboard -both activities rely on muscle memory plus thought process, subject to many variables and extenuating condirions.
But no doubt those annoying big words will now come to my attention, blessedly oblivious as I had been prior.
I hate ontological! No-one normal uses it IMHO! Re the writing v typing, I think (will have to read it again despite having read it on paper!) the difference is in the way you learn to write and read – especially write – forming the letters with a tool in your hand makes your brain behave differently. Sorry to have crowded your mental dictionary with rarely usable words!
“What use is memory if everything’s instantly look-up-able?” Good point, and a very good post. I also admit to having had to google coruscate. Thanks for smarting-up my morning!
There are words I know and have known for years and my in-house academic occasionally asks, do you know what [—] means and I say yes, then realise I can’t tell him. I’m fascinated by the use of words but not a dictionary reader. And, shh – don’t tell, I just looked up coruscating too to make sure I had understood it correctly myself! Thanks for reading.
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Lovely to hear that a BBC reporter used “coruscating!” Do you remember what the reporter was describing? Perhaps someday people will start speaking in binary, after all there is an entire generation that speaks in “internet slang,” but there will always be a few of us who love and cherish our beautiful and complex words.
Good morning and thank you for reading this – and even more thanks for commenting. I was feeling rather dispirited about my blogging last night and waking up to a new day with your comment has revived me.
No, I’m afraid I can’t remember what he was reporting – I think I was so shocked by the fact that I was shocked. I’m not a morning person and need 4 cups of tea to start the day! I too love words and am aware my own usage has been affected by many things – including time spent living abroad when I know I found myself using simple words so as to make life easier for my colleagues. I’m making a resolution to learn more and enjoy them more now. Bye for now, M
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🙂 I am very honored to have lifted your spirits! What a wonderful compliment. I love words as well and am excited to be reading more of yours.
I also looked up ‘coruscate’ and, to my shame, it meant something different to what I imagined. Well done, Liverpool on their ‘stadia’. Liverpudlians do tend to do things twice over. Think of the Spinners’ song, ‘In Our Liverpool Home’ which contains the line ‘If you want a cathedral, we’ve got one to spare’.
Regarding remembering more from a printed book, it is more convenient to go back and read something again in a printed book and therefore easier to grasp things. I read novels on my Kindle all the time, but, for work, when I need to learn about something, I do printed every time.
Yes, coruscating is one of those words – you think you know what it means then you look it up and …. hmm, not quite! I am with you on printed versus e-reading, I think I just don;t take e-reading that seriously – I tend to download to the Kindle only if it’s something either for work or I don’t really know if I want!
Thanks as ever for reading Charlie and I hope your Christmas break brings peace and joy.
It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one to have problems with ‘ontological’, still now, having just looked it up again. Then, yes, the Latin and Greek plurals, and now a plural for a singular: ‘the media is’? And this kind of thing: “differentiate between how cattle versus small stock were used”, from an academic text book. One bright spot however, we recently attended a talk on the past and future of the book and came away encouraged by the speaker’s optimism that the physical object the book will never be completely superseded by the ipad etc.
Hello John, Happy Christmas to you. Yes, there have been some good reports lately about ‘real’ books – seems they are not dying after all! Hooray. I do have a Kindle but I really don’t like reading anything I care about on it. I find that I am beginning to cave in to things I hate like ‘the military’ – I always used to yell, ‘the military what?’ at the radio but not any more. There are things I cannot fight but I do still l hate ‘the [any political] party are’ and government are and the BBC are… sigh. I’m reading a book called ‘Absence’ at the moment which is disturbing. More of that anon.
Finally got time to read some more of your posts!
As you will have realised by now, my comments are far from one liners so I don’t see myself as a binary speaker any time soon 🙂
PS. I’ve also seen the sales figures for e-readers and they are dropping like a stone. Hurrah! I hate the things. I much prefer to have a proper book as it is so much more tactile.I also enjoy the smell of a book, whether it be that freshly pressed brand new print or the musty smell of an archaic volume. An e-reader simply can’t compete.
Are you suggesting prolixity might be one of your attributes? 😉 Yes, give me a good old fashioned book any day. There’s even one more sense I can bring to bear – when I was little I used to stick the page under my fingernail, squeeze then pull out a little crescent-shaped segment of the paper and eat it! Enid Blyton books only you understand. Old fashioned thick paper. I know, no excuse…