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Making the Most of Language

Posted on Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 6:14 PM

Two books to put you on the right path to communicating information and ideas.

By Peter P. Jacobi

It is often a matter of going too far or not far enough, this as we worry our way through a manuscript.

We ponder. Are we making the most of the language in support of our writing project? Are we not? Are we making too much of the subject in the way we're expressing ourselves? Are we making too little? Are our verbal choices pointing in the right direction or getting in the way? Are we being honest in our expression?

A pair of recently published books addresses the above issues in unusually circumscribed ways, each book dealing with a particular path toward communicating information and ideas.

From Arthur Plotnik...

...we get Better Than Great, A Plentitudinous Comendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (Viva Editions). I've yet to come across a Plotnik book that fails to offer sagacious advice for us as writers and editors, this one now included.

Worn-Out Words and Phrases

While reading it, I was reminded of the fact or fable that had the one-time movie magnate Sam Goldwyn -- after viewing a new film about to go out with the Goldwyn label -- ask a colleague what he thought of it.

"Great!" the man exuded. "Just terrific! It'll make history."

To which Goldwyn responded: "So you liked it?"

So many years later, Plotnik argues: "Our words and phrases of acclaim are worn out, all but impotent. Even so, we find ourselves defaulting to such habitual choices as good, great, and terrific, or substituting the weary synonyms that tumble out of a thesaurus -- superb, marvelous, outstanding, and the like.... Terms expected to describe miracles, epiphanies, and colossal wonderments are exhausted on assignments like these:

"Try our amazing onion rings."

"That my beer? Awesome."

"It's a fantastic mattress. I had a fabulous sleep."

In the 225-or-so pages that follow, Plotnik offers other options and solutions in 15 chapters, such as "GREAT: A Tough Word to Beat," "BEAUTIFUL: Untying the Beauty-Bound Tongue," "LARGE: It's All Relative," and "COOL: When Words Collide." There are also appendices that include "100 Selected Acclamatory Terms from Recent Criticism and Advertising" and "Quick Habit-Breakers: A Starter Set."

In a chapter devoted to "forceful," Plotnik suggests we associate the word with "powerful forces.... Why," he asks, "hitch your wagon to feeble praise when you can harness the power of muscle, nature, even the atom?" He mentions sinewy bridges, incinerating wit, a fissionable fastball. And as he does throughout the book, Plotnik provides enlightening samples from literature. He quotes Milton, for instance, after adding "adamantine" to his long and inviting list of alternatives for "forceful." The word is defined as "unyielding" and "diamond hard." Then comes Milton, from Paradise Lost: "Him the Almighty Power / hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky / with hideous ruin and combustion down / to bottomless perdition: there to dwell / in adamantine chains and penal fire..."

He turns to J. M. Coetzee's Foe in his chapter, "Challenging Belief or Expression." "When the scene turns paranormal," Plotnik writes, "our normal response tends to be unbelievable or incredible." Don't be so easily satisfied, he preaches. Be like Coetzee when he lays before us this passage: "...I have nothing to say. It is a question we can only stare at in silence, like a bird before a snake, hoping it will not swallow us."

There is much, however, to swallow in Better Than Great, and to digest, all to make us better.

From Ralph Keyes...

...there comes Euphemania, Our Love Affair with Euphemisms (Little Brown). They are "a form of synonym," Keyes explains, that "have heavier freight to carry." They "reflect their time and place." They often result "from an excess of politeness and prudery." They can also "demonstrate creativity and high good humor. Shakespeare was not polite and was hardly prudish, but his plays brim with euphemistic wordplay."

Creative Euphemisms

We are urged to use them as Shakespeare does, creatively, rather than as evasions. "The terms we use and those we avoid reflect deeper concerns, which change over time," writes Keyes. "Several centuries ago, when religion reigned, we converted 'damn' to darn and 'hell' to heck. Then prudery kicked in, and the gonads became family jewels and the vagina, down there. Today, it's death, disability, and discrimination that provide fodder for euphemisms, as we grope for inoffensive terms to designate loved ones who have died, those with physical or intellectual limitations, and members of minority groups."

Euphemisms, Keyes argues, "have gone from being a tool of the church to a form of gentility to an instrument of commercial, political, and postmodern doublespeak." He explores their different functions. In a chapter devoted to "Mincing Words," he points to the use of foreign words (the Spanish cojones versus the English balls) and professional jargon (seismic activity for earthquake and unscheduled energetic disassembly for nuclear meltdown).

A chapter covering "Under the Weather and In the Ground" begins: "One of my least favorite euphemisms is 'This may pinch a little,' murmured by a doctor or dentist who is about to do something that's going to really, really hurt. Alternatively, 'You may experience some discomfort.' Or 'A little pressure.' Obviously, medical personnel don't want to announce boldly, 'This will hurt' or 'A little pain,' so they resort to pinch, pressure, and discomfort as euphemisms.

"When it comes to death," Keyes later adds, "the euphemistic fog becomes nearly impenetrable" (from "no longer with us," "laid down their burden," and "pushing up daisies" to "passed away" and just "passed"). Food, money and commerce, war, and other realities and concerns are given their due in this well considered book.

Keyes warns, "Too much euphemizing fosters an evasive frame of mind, one that tiptoes around issues rather than confronting them." Overreliance "has consequences. When put to work on behalf of specific agendas, euphemistic discourse doesn't just hinder communication; it clouds thought." The author praises candor.

I do, too.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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