Archive for September, 2016

Fame is Fugacious

Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Sep 26 2016

Not long ago, I took a vocabulary quiz. In the process of it, I learned two new words, avulse and fugaciousfugacious. It struck me as unfortunate that I would have to look long and hard for an opportunity to use avulse, and I would probably never get a chance to use fugacious at all. They’re just too obscure.

We stand heir to a vast accumulated vocabulary, with words that range from everyday to rarefied to absolutely arcane. This has spawned one of those perpetual debates among writers and editors and agents, and in which readers have their own well-deserved opinions. The never-resolved question is: What words should writers use? What words are too old, too different, too long?

At the heart of the debate is a tension between two competing, legitimate principles. The first principle is that the ultimate aim of writing is to be understood. Far more than self-expression (because then why not just keep it to yourself?), writing is communication. You are not communicating if people cannot understand you.

The second principle is that writing cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Some words are more apt than others, and sometimes the long word or the old word is the one that sings. Although writers should not, on the risk of being obnoxious, consider it their duty to expand their readers’ vocabularies, neither have they failed if they send their readers to the Dictionary.

The tension between these two principles is worked out book by book, sentence by sentence, word by word. There is no universal rule to lay down. I think it worth stating, however, that the thing really to be avoided is not the unknown word but the odd-duck word. These are the words that sound awkward or weird or (perhaps worst of all) funny. These are the words that jolt readers out of a text, and that is something all writers strive devoutly never to do.

Words often drop out of use because language evolves and culture changes, and they don’t fit anymore. Consider the wordoxblood,” a shade of red that is not actually what you would imagine ox blood to be. Ox blood was once used as a pigment in creating dyes and paints. This would explain why oxblood is a dark color, and not the bright red we normally associate with blood: It was originally associated with ox blood that had dried or been mixed with other ingredients or soaked into materials such as wood or leather.

In our own day, when these associations have been lost, oxblood has lost much of its power. Even people who can define the word do not possess the images that first inspired it. Writers develop literary crushes on words, but it is good to consider whether those words, transplanted from the soil where they first grew, will truly thrive.

With most obscure words, the trouble is not dead cultural associations but simply the sound. Some are so unusual, so odd, that your eyes trip over the syllables. Others don’t sound like what they mean. This is the trouble with fugacious. It means fleeting, but to modern ears it only sounds silly, and I would sound silly, too, if I tried to used it (“Fame is fugacious”). Possibly, though, I could play it for humor: “My lunch hour was fugacious.”

By contrast, I have more hope for avulse (“to pull off or tear away forcibly“) because similar, well-known words like repulse and convulse also have vaguely violent meanings. Encountering an unknown word does not, in itself, jar readers out of a book. But the unknown word must flow, must give an impression in tune with its actual meaning. This is why you will not go wrong with words like invidious and deleterious: They sound as bad as they are.

There is a time, Solomon wrote, for everything, and probably a place for every word. No word should be summarily rejected, or uncritically accepted. In a living language, words fade away and sometimes ought to, but it takes a long time for a word to fade beyond all use.

Never Forget

Culture, History | Posted by Shannon
Sep 11 2016

(Excerpts from President Bush’s address at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.)

 

 

We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them. On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel.

Now come the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read:

They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life.

They are the names of people who faced death and in their last moments called home to say, be brave and I love you.

They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers and prevented the murder of others on the ground.

They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States and died at their posts.

They are the names of rescuers — the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others.

We will read all these names. We will linger over them and learn their stories, and many Americans will weep. …

War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing. Our purpose as a nation is firm, yet our wounds as a people are recent and unhealed and lead us to pray. In many of our prayers this week, there’s a searching and an honesty. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, on Tuesday, a woman said, “I pray to God to give us a sign that He’s still here.”

Others have prayed for the same, searching hospital to hospital, carrying pictures of those still missing. God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own, yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral are known and heard and understood. There are prayers that help us last through the day or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey, and there are prayers that yield our will to a Will greater than our own.

This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.

It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded and the world has seen that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave. …

America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for, but we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender, and the commitment of our Fathers is now the calling of our time.

 

On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask Almighty God to watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.

As we’ve been assured, neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth can separate us from God’s love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country.

God bless America.