How Degrading

A little tip of the hat to Rich K, who mentioned that Rachel Lucas was blogging again. I had an enjoyable half an hour this morning reading her current posts. She is an essayist, which makes her a rarity in the blogosphere. One of her posts linked to a small treatise written by Clark Whelton, titled What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness The decline and fall of American English, and stuff which I read and am obliquely responding to. It is a worthy quick read that I strongly agree with.

I was a very smart child. I had a large vocabulary at a young age, and was reading books far beyond my age group before I entered first grade. I also excelled at math and science and absorbed history and geography like a sponge. This won me no friends, and I was “Mr. Encyclopedia” and “dictionary Pearce” through many of my formative years. It occasionally got me in trouble too; I clearly recall being sent to the principal’s office because I gave the teacher an argument over a simple third grade exercise where you had to draw lines between pictures of objects and their written names. There was the word “fish” and there was a picture of a shark. I drew no line, and was marked wrong. Enraged that I only earned a 98 on the busy work “learning” project, I fought it. The principal had dealt with me before, and was highly aware of my precocious abilities. So instead of just making me sit in a corner for some time, he brought me into his office and asked me why I hadn’t drawn the obvious line. I told him that I felt it was a trick question, because a shark is not a fish. A shark is a cartilogenous elasmobranch. Yes, I said that. Third grade. I was that kind of kid. My parents had purchased us a nice set of moderate encyclopedias, which my brother and I devoured for many years, and one volume had one of those “tree of life” diagrams showing how all living things are related. I’d spotted the fish/shark split on one branch, and asked about it. This got me a rather exact answer from my father the professional biologist. Sharks and rays do not have bones, they do not have ribs, they do not have gill pumps, and they do not have swim bladders. Thus, they are not actually fish. To my everlasting chagrin, many years later that “tree” diagram was changed, and now has “bony fish” and “non-bony fish” sub-branching off of “fish” (well, in layman’s terms, which foreshadows the point I’m slowly making here). But in 1968 I was in accord with the textbooks of the day.

The lesson I learned from that and many similar experiences was “hide your lamp under a bushel”, and that lesson has been with me my entire life. And yet I still slip up sometimes. At bowling league the other week, talking about bowling with some of the other bowlers, without thinking I mentioned that certain lane conditions induce certain ball behaviors. The two ladies just looked at me for a second. Tick tock, tick tock, blink blink. “Induce”, says one, “that’s a good word.” I did some really fast mental reviewing to check that I had used the word properly. I had. “Yes”, I said, “it is.” End of conversation. Some things never change.

So I found Whelton’s analysis interesting. So did several hundred other people, who all left comments reinforcing his premise. Sadly, the degradation of our native language is even worse than Whelton realizes. Even discounting the snarky comments that tried to paint him priggishly pink, nearly every one of the 50 or so that I read contain grammar, spelling, or usage errors. That’s very sad. We should not dumb down our language usage; we should smarten it up. We should revel in our broad vocabularies, and we should endeavor to speak and write with precision and clarity.  And conciseness, my great failing. We don’t need to enverbiate incessantly when so many synonyms already exist and can be applied with only an additional word or two. English is the greatest and broadest language in the history of civilization, and maladroitness with our own native tongue will not give us any competitive advantage anywhere.

Blame PC. Blame the glorification of ghetto culture. Blame the school system. Blame the never-ending cradle to grave castigation of intelligence in America. Blame lazy parenting. Blame the computer revolution that has given us texting, online spell checkers and grammar checkers, which make learning the arcane arts of reading, writing, and effective communication nearly redundant. But if you read or hear a word that you are not familiar with, first blame yourself if your immediate reaction is not curiosity. If instead of “hey, what does that word mean, how is it pronounced, how do I use it, can I derive a general meaning from the context?” you instead just skip over it, or worse yet, feel resentful ... then you are not part of the solution. You are part of the problem. And that is degrading. 

Posted by Drew458    United States   on 01/29/2013 at 02:34 PM   
  1. Drew, one thing I can not fathom is why you would believe it’s best to hide the lamp.
    Why should you hide the lamp simply because some might be overwhelmed?  Have you thought it might do em a bit of good the have that light fall on them too?  For those who choose the darkness to light, well heck. Ignore them. Surely you aren’t willing to join them in their cave.

    Posted by peiper    United Kingdom   01/29/2013  at  06:04 PM  
  2. Oh, I’m in complete sympathy, having been the same sort a mere few years later.  One hides the light when it becomes clear the incessant justifying that must be done.  “They” are too invested in their mediocrity to benefit.  It was fortunate for me that I was able to cope physically with those designated my peers, but I let them forget, and surprised many teachers along the way.  it made me smile like an inside joke.

    Posted by Mr Evilwrench    United States   01/30/2013  at  01:45 AM  
  3. What Mr Evil says. But if everyone else is in the cave, then the cave is the place to be. A lonely child can’t rationalize such things; they too want to fit in.

    What always confused me was that the dumb kids who couldn’t do math or read could memorize sports player’s names, teams, histories, and statistics, and be able to analyze those stats meaningfully at a quite young age. They weren’t that dumb at all; they just used their smarts for the limited things (sports) they were curious about.

    Maybe these days, when all the kids at every Lake Woebegone are far above average, schools have regular steady programs for the gifted. Seems to me that some do sometimes, but these programs often get cut first when fiscal troubles arise. But there’s always endless money, time, staff for the dumb kids, to help them catch up. Hell, it’s hard even finding a teacher to run a gifted class; many adults simply can not deal with a 9 year old who is far smarter than they are. They get quite uppity. Also, any “advanced” class has to be filled out to make it “worthwhile”, so half the class doesn’t really belong there. Administrators have a hard time not seeing children like this as lab rats. “Hey, let’s put the 2nd grader in 6th grade and see how he fares!” Well, duh, result: he can do the school work with ease, but he gets his ass kicked by 12 year olds who now look stupid in front of teacher compared to a little kid. Gee, that works.

    Posted by Drew458    United States   01/30/2013  at  03:23 AM  
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