On Precision in Language

“The sick are man’s greatest danger; not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ Those who’re failures from the start, downtrodden, crushed––it is they, the weakest, who must undermine life among men, who call into question and poison most dangerously our trust in life, in man, and in ourselves.” (The Genealogy of Morals 122)

Do you picture gas chambers? Systematic elimination? The devaluation of the old, the mortally diseased, the stragglers, those of a certain race? Does this not echo with Nazi Germany’s holocaust philosophy? It is ‘weakness’ that must be stamped out––evil isn’t even part of the conversation. I don’t know whether Nietzsche directly influenced Nazism, but who would be surprised if this kind of rhetoric shaped Hitler’s ideology?

Not to hold Nietzsche accountable for the atrocities of Nazism. Words often get misconstrued, misheard, misappropriated. People misquote Saint Francis all the time, for instance. And Nazism’s central symbol was a re-appropriation of an ancient Sanskrit cross. I often selectively listen to others’ words and sometimes take their statements out of context to show something I don’t like about them. Indeed, much of the miscommunication that has happened in my life has been caused by indefinite language. Often I and those around me are simply unwilling to put in the effort needed to express ourselves clearly and coherently.

Other times, I and those around me are simply unaware of how potent our words are, how significant their implications could be. Lewis starts off his essay The Abolition of Man by highlighting one such instance of imprecision––in an English grammar book of all places. He references two authors who, in their textbook, presume to undertake a task different from grammatical instruction. They claim that statements of value are subjective statements about personal feelings, ultimately devoid of any objective meaning: “‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings’” (2-3). Lewis takes issue with them on several accounts. For one, they’re failing to fulfill their goal of teaching English by secretly inculcating values. And their language is loaded.

Lewis’ main concern is the tendency of their argument about values:

“I am not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind. . . . they have not said that judgments of value are unimportant. Their words are that we ‘appear to be saying something very important’ when in reality we are ‘only saying something about our own feelings’. No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only. I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius is that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” (4-5)

Lewis is concerned less with what they’re saying at face value than with the drift, the tendency, the implications of their words. But he’s also pretty much just semantically meddling with them––not only with the general gist of what they said, but with the specific phrasing and word choice. Why? Because their word choice, he predicts, will have immense internal repercussions in the minds of the students reading the book. The specific words have specific and serious effects, altering the students’ ideas without the students even being aware of what’s being done to them. Lewis fears that the authors’ words inculcate new assumptions into the young readers’ minds. Assumptions are dangers because they frame conversations before anyone says a word––assumptions pre-determine people’s ideas, often without their knowledge.

There are two things I take from this. 1) Words carry assumptions, be they inaccurate or true. Words are these kind of intrinsically neutral things that are fraught with potential––the potential for deception, for falsehood, for truth, for guidance, for love. They can be the vehicles that transmit assumptions. 2) Words carry meaning far beyond their explicit and direct definitions, beyond what they say at face value. This is Lewis’ issue with the English grammar authors: they don’t say that values are subjective and thus unimportant, but their words tend towards the point that values are subjective and thus unimportant. Many words together mean more than the sum of their parts.

A professor of mine recently asked me, while helping me prepare for a poetry discussion, “What is the poem saying that’s not on the page?” This same question can be asked of anything we write or speak. What are we saying beyond the words coming out of our mouths? What’s the drift of our voiced thoughts? The risks of miscommunication can be avoided sometimes by precision in language. Ultimately, however, the only way to ensure our words do not tend towards a bad end––to avoid planting bad assumptions in people or conveying detrimental ideas––is to work on our insides. Jesus put it simply: “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). And what comes from our hearts is dangerous. Solomon tells us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Our words and their tendency come kicking and screaming––with the power to kill and enliven––out of our hearts.

Lewis points out that those writing the English grammar textbooks fail to give their subjects the honor of freedom––whether deliberately or unintentionally, they slip assumptions into the students’ malleable minds without warning. It would be better to give the students awareness, to let them choose for themselves which ideas they’ll embrace as foundational and which kinds of thoughts they will form their frames of reference with. In an age when words (through communication technology and cyberspace) are literally thrown around everywhere at all times, being as precise as we can with our words will help us use words in a way that gives others freedom. Precise word usage could be a pathway to love.


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