Good usage, bad usage, and usage

In another life, I was an English literature major, which means I can drive family and friends nuts with my attention to language. Waiting for a client the other day, I was browsing through a waiting room copy of Life’s Little Instruction Book [1991] and was struck by instruction #459: “Don’t use time or words carelessly. Neither can be retrieved.” It took me back to  Abracadabra‘s theme  and to a much more distant memory: a paragraph written by Morris Bishop in one of the early editions of the American Heritage Dictionary [mine is a now-threadbare 1971 edition].

While Bishop used it to launch a discussion of who determines good usage or bad, I’ve always used it to remind me that language is, as he suggests, a living entity. Since language is also a primary means by which we connect—or fail to connect—with one another, I’ve come to treat it with the utmost respect. My respect began the day I read this paragraph.

Here it is. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

The words of a living language are like creatures: they are alive. Each word has a physical character, a look and a personality, an ancestry, an expectation of life and death, a hope of posterity. Some words strike us as beautiful, some ugly, some evil. The word glory seems to shine; the common word for excrement seems to smell. There are holy words, like the proper name of God, pronounced only once a year in the innermost court of Jerusalem’s Temple. There are magic words, spells to open gates and safes, summon spirits, put an end to the world. What are magic spells but magic spellings? Words sing to us, frighten us, impel us to self-immolation and murder. They belong to us; they couple at our order, to make what have well been called the aureate words of poets and the inkhorn words of pedants. We can keep our words alive, or at our caprice we can kill them—though some escape and prosper in our despite.

If this speaks to you half as powerfully as it spoke to me, then I invite you to pay attention to the words you use … and, harking back to Abracadabra, to what you create when you use them.

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