Let’s take a short break from the creation of our mid 20th-century pop-culture textbook and talk about our mother tongue this week. I am that weirdo from your high school English class who actually loved the subject matter.
English is the street urchin of languages. It has always slithered up beside other tongues, fingering their coats, picking their pockets and stealing their words. French, German, Flemish, Danish, Algonquin or Chinese, anything was fair game if it was colorful and useful.
What got me started on this charming digression of a column was the word “egregious,” one we stole from Latin. I can hear Vicky Kunselman Hoffman at the library slapping her forehead right now.
I blame it on being addicted to the Reader Digest’s feature, It Pays to Increase Your Word Power, when I was a kid. It floats across my mind’s eye on a regular basis for some reason.
I lived in a university town for nearly 25 years, so you’d hear three- and four-syllable words used in casual everyday conversation all the time. It’s hard to break a habit you pick up in your formative years, so I still let fly with a word or three that can make you reach for your dictionary.
Believe me, I’m not a groovy hipster. That’s just the way I talk and write sometimes.
This is where “egregious” comes into play. It means that something is really, truly and horribly awful, the kind of awful that makes frail ladies get the vapors and small dogs chase and bite their tails. If you have ever worn orange socks with brown sandals and black slacks, you have been egregious.
”Egregious” is a couple of steps above overworked words such as “hideous” and “appalling.” I loathe those two words because in that university town, they were flung about like so much verbal confetti. “Verbal” comes from Latin and “confetti” comes straight from Italian, so I can only hazard a guess that those poor souls thought they were being cosmopolitan.
I was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine at a time when “hideous” and “appalling” were polluting polite conversation. The magazine had pretentions of being uptown and swanky, and anyone appearing in a feature story would cut it out, frame it and hang it in a prominent spot at home or in the office because of the bragging rights it bestowed.
Unfortunately, if the placement of a single comma of questionable usefulness wasn’t to somebody’s liking, the publisher would get a nasty phone call and the entire 1,500-word piece was suddenly hideous and appalling. Which always made the editorial staff blink their watering eyes and blubber “What? What?” for the rest of the day.
This is why I cackle with glee when I run across “egregious” on the printed page.
”Dang, Skippy, that guy can write. Look at that. He used ‘egregious’ in a sentence.”
Now, this word has four syllables. It is powerful, and for this reason it has to be used wisely.
Say something like, “Hey, Jim, this last cutting of hay is pretty egregious, isn’t it?” and your friends and neighbors will start whispering about maybe getting you some kind of “help.”
So, most of the time we should stick to that plain bare English that Winston Churchill liked to use in his now-famous World War II speeches. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, he delivered his legendary speech about fighting in the streets and on the beaches, about never surrendering.
Every word of that speech had its roots in a simple one- or two-syllable Old English expression in use before the Norman Conquest. The only word borrowed from French was “surrender” and it was the final one, and it was perfect. That is the power of the right word in the right place.
I keep coming back to this Churchill speech because it is such a great example of good communication.
When you’re writing for a newspaper, it is best to keep things simple. Readers are far from dumb, but most of them don’t have time to look up complex words in the dictionary while reading the paper. For one thing, it absolutely kills conversation around the dinner table.
But I’m something of a rebel, and sometimes only a four-syllable wowser will do. Why write a 20-word sentence to say something when there is one elegant long word that will do the trick?
Besides, looking up an unfamiliar word exercises your brain, and we all know how important exercise is to good health. You read all kinds of articles about preserving your brain health these days, and big words are good for you. I’m sticking to that story.
In conclusion, I am happy to report that I avoided staring at the sun during the eclipse last week and was able to see the keyboard this morning. Otherwise, things might have been hideously egregious in the L-V office.