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Isolation Bookshelf: Words Matter

Each of the books I mention here can help us to be conscious—to be “in the know,” which is what Austen meant by the word—thus using the gift of speech in ways that accord with our nature as “the reflexive animal,” as Lewis calls us, governed by “the inner lawgiver” (Lewis again) of our conscience. And these conjoined obligations—to our nature and to our speech—are why even pronouns are a field of battle that truth-tellers should not surrender.

Last week, here at Public Discourse, I wrote an essay about the ideological dimensions of transgenderism, in the course of which I chose to refer to a “transgender man”—a woman transitioning to presentation of herself as a man—by the feminine pronouns that accorded with the truth of her biological sex. This choice of pronouns proved to be a stumbling block to some readers, who treated it as at least a discourtesy on my part, or at worst a grave offense against decency, ethics, and the emerging recognition that our “gender” is whatever we say it is.

My use of feminine pronouns was not incidental to my argument against transgender ideology, but central to it. And these reactions—particularly the more censorious—brought home just how deep our contemporary ideological struggles are. They go to the very heart of our nature—who we are as human beings—and thus inevitably they touch also on the language that we use. For human beings are the speaking animals—the creatures, as Aristotle observes, with logos (which means both “speech” and “reason”). We are the speaking animals, and therefore the reason-giving animals, forever giving an account of ourselves: of our identity, our nature, our actions, our relationships.

And this put me in mind of some books on language that have stayed with me over the years. I do not now mean to discuss “usage guides,” though that might be a subject for another column. But the first and lightest book I’ll mention is Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English (1997), which is subtitled A Guide to Modern Usage. At 250 pages, with entries of half a page or more in length, it hardly lays claim to being comprehensive as such a guide, but it has the alphabetical layout one expects from a dictionary of sorts. It is really a set of miniature screeds about a gifted writer’s pet peeves, and, the writer being Amis, it is full of barbed wit.

Still, even twenty-three years ago, Amis tiptoed around the subject of “Gender,” on which he included an entry beginning thus: “Many people would agree that this term would be best kept as what until the other day it exclusively was, a grammatical distinction between classes of noun and pronoun. . . .” And for the rest of the entry Amis signaled only an arm’s-length sympathy with this traditional use of “gender,” suppressing the impulse to excoriate solecism and misuse that seems to animate nearly every other entry in the book. Notwithstanding this soft-pedaling, this is a good book, even for American readers who will think Amis’s Englishness a bit odd in places.

Much more relentless, and delving more deeply into writing’s relation to thinking, is Richard Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say (1979). Mitchell, who taught English at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in New Jersey, became famous in academe in the 1970s and ’80s for The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter he wrote and published that particularly dissected the bloated bureaucratese of university administrators. Less Than Words Can Say scores even higher on the curmudgeon scale than Amis’s book, and is full of sound insights on the ways in which language and thought are interdependent. At one point Mitchell imagines how “an ordinary bureaucrat” would have written Winston Churchill’s line that “we shall fight on the beaches” etc., and comes up with this:

Consolidated defensive positions and essential pre-planned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several preidentified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.

Echoing Aristotle, Mitchell writes, “Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious.”  For this reason, he derides the notion of “visual literacy,” insisting: “One picture is not worth a thousand words. A picture is not worth any words at all,” though it “may cause a thousand words in some beholder. Or many thousand. Or in some other beholder, none at all.” For Mitchell, “knowledge and understanding . . . must come in the form of language.”

I think Josef Pieper would agree. In his little book Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power (1974, English translation 1992), Pieper asks:

Can a lie be taken as communication? I tend to deny it. A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality.

The connection to politics should be obvious: “the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word.” And the relationship of sophistry to tyranny has been a theme of political philosophy ever since Plato, whose thought is understandably a touchstone for Pieper.

I still recall the excitement I felt twenty years ago in reading Plastic Words (1988, English translation 1995), by the German linguist Uwe Poerksen. Subtitled The Tyranny of a Modular Language, Poerksen’s book searches out one of the distinctive features of modern language: the invasion of the vernacular by specialized yet highly abstract words that hover somehow above the plane of reality, yet are mistaken for real things themselves. Words like development, energy, factor, model, process, role, strategy, structure, and value are “plastic” in two senses. First, they are shape-shifters, assuming whatever meaning a user wishes to impart to them. Second, they are artificial or synthetic, divorced from the natures of things.

Poerksen, by no means a man of the right, has particularly acute things to say about the plastic word “sexuality,” which came into common use by way of nineteenth-century psychology. “A person in the Middle Ages,” he writes, “had no ‘sexuality,’ neither the word nor the thing. This is a relatively recent construction.” There is much food for thought in this brief but densely argued book.

Last of all, I’ll recommend C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words (1960), which the Christian apologist and novelist wrote late in his academic career as a scholar of English literature. Through a close study of the histories of such words as nature, wit, free, sense, simple, and world, Lewis brings to light the ways in which words ramify, “like a tree throwing out new branches,” which “sometimes overshadow and kill the old ones but by no means always.” When we read old texts, if we are not alive to the fact that an author is employing older meanings of words that are half lost to us now, we will not properly understand them.

Seeing only the meanings we attach to words today, we will light on what Lewis calls the “dangerous sense” of a word, and it will “lure us into misreadings” of a text in front of us. In a brilliant chapter, for instance, on “Conscience and Conscious,” Lewis invites us to consider what Jane Austen meant in Northanger Abbey by referring to Mrs. Morland’s “conscious daughter,” or in Sense and Sensibility when Colonel Brandon is said to have “looked so conscious.”

Each of the books I mention here can help us to be conscious—to be “in the know,” which is what Austen meant by the word—thus using the gift of speech in ways that accord with our nature as “the reflexive animal,” as Lewis calls us, governed by “the inner lawgiver” (Lewis again) of our conscience. And these conjoined obligations—to our nature and to our speech—are why even pronouns are a field of battle that truth-tellers should not surrender.

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