Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s new book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, is a warning against industrialized language prevalent in contemporary America, where words “come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed.” To combat this, she advocates a strenuous connoisseurship that insists on “useable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.”
While the author’s Christian commitment is clear throughout—Caring for Words grew out of her 2004 Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary—the book is focused on the “horizontal” dimension of language, on its primary role as man’s chief social tool. As she puts it, “caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words.” The state of English therefore concerns everyone—not just poets and English teachers like herself.
McEntrye forthrightly identifies the villains: biased journalists and cynical advertisers, entertainers, and politicians. These usual suspects, she says, are the titans of the word industry who have inundated us with cheap language designed not to tell the truth, but to manipulate, evade, or sell. Public language is thus (to adopt McEntyre’s preferred, ecological metaphor) polluted and depleted by “thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bites, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather” which seep malignantly into ordinary speech and thought.
Polluted and depleted language is obviously an inadequate medium for proper public debate. McEntyre agrees with George Orwell that last use of language leads to foolish thoughts, including foolish thoughts about urgent questions of the common good. When we lose the “subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.”
McEntyre worries that the prevalence of bad English not only deadens our sensitivity to truth and falsehood but also spoils our taste for language as language, thereby denying us a pleasure “akin to the pleasures of music.” She wants us to be sensitive to euphony, layered meaning and double reference, allusion, ambiguity, and association, to relish words that are “not just meaning or reporting or chronicling or marching in syntactic formation, but performing themselves, sounding, echoing….”
Perhaps worse than the loss of music is the loss of subtlety and range, which diminishes experience itself. “As words fall into disuse,” McEntyre says, “the experiences they articulate become less accessible.” She illustrates this point excellently through a meandering reflection on the word felicity. We are less likely to enjoy this very particular kind of sober, rational mature happiness sought by Jane Austen’s heroines if we abandon or flatten a word that identifies it with clarity and distinction. Only felicity can reliably present felicity to the consciousness as an attractive possibility; without it, the incontinent self-indulgence glamorized in popular entertainment becomes our only model of happiness.
But what can we do about these problems? In the spirit of her ecological metaphor, McEntyre suggests twelve enumerated “conservation strategies,” devoting a chapter to each. They all contain important insights and helpful examples, but the essence of the book is contained in the second and the third: “Tell the Truth” and “Don’t Tolerate Lies.”
As one might expect, McEntyre dutifully rehearses the familiar point that telling the truth can win you enemies, but she is not content to entrance us with the glamour of martyrdom for “speaking truth to power.” She instead emphasizes the difficulty of finding and articulating the truth. McEntyre wants us relentlessly, painfully to practice precision—clarity, exactness, just proportion, attention to the particular—in our writing and conversation. But because we are fallible, and because language cannot capture truth in its fullness, humility must sober our passion. Her description of what Eliot famously called the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” will strike a chord in all poor souls who, with different degrees of voluntariness, submit to the agony of writing:
Telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed. The weather is never predictable and there is always an undertow…We calibrate the differences between what we want words to mean and how they may be heard; we pick them up from the dusty corners where most of the good ones have been consigned to disuse and re-introduce them, hoping to ambush the listener who is contented with cliché. Like Adrienne Rich, who called herself a ‘woman sworn to lucidity,’ we pledge our energies to the work of smithing of words for purposes they have never before had to serve.
She observes that precision begins with defining terms (a discipline that should be drummed into the American commentariat, by gunpoint if necessary) and helpfully mentions specific terms—liberal, conservative, patriotic, terrorist, Christian—“whose imprecise usage poses a serious threat to peace and safety.”
It is, of course, a worthy therapeutic exercise to identify and analyze vague terms in our own vocabularies, but in urging us not to tolerate lies, McEntyre tells us to demand precision from others, especially when they speak in public. She outlines our civic duty of “clarifying where there is confusion; naming where there is evasion; correcting where there is error; fine-tuning where there is imprecision; satirizing where there is folly; changing the terms when the terms falsify.”
Perhaps conscious of the lurking gremlin-army of spiteful reviewers ready to hoist her with her own petard, McEntyre practices the precision and restraint she preaches. The book has the strident title and the simple Problem-Solution structure common to such programmatic essays in cultural criticism, but it is happily free from shrillness, the genre’s besetting vice. There are a few conventional expressions of scorn for certain cultural institutions (perhaps inevitably—what word besides drivel can describe talk radio?), but one may fairly say, in a wholly complimentary spirit, that McEntyre has no evident gift for polemic.
And after all, McEntyre’s aim is not to criticize but to unite us around a common good. She asks us to “help one another” by forming “reading groups, discussion groups, and Web sites where information can be shared and pondered among folks who trust one another’s purposes….” A healthy culture of the word is the product of intense communal collaboration in disciplined pursuit of the truth.
Stefan McDaniel is a former assistant editor of First Things.