A love of vocabulary might be the most important thing you ever give your kids.
I can’t remember when the passion was instilled in me. My mother read to me every morning and every night, from books which were beautifully written and which often used words I had not heard before. We talked about prose that “sang” and prose that did not. We talked about the meanings of words, and because these moments were early and intimate, vocabulary became a thing I not only revered but also loved.
It is right that words should move us to tears, and that they should move us to joy. It is in words that truth is communicated and understood. Even before there was another human being to speak to, Adam was differentiated from the animals by his capacity to speak; it is through the words of The Word that we, like Adam, learn who we are. With a word, the world was formed from nothing; by words, marriages are not merely announced but created. Ancient peoples dubbed their magic rituals “spells,” and they were right: words are the most powerful things in creation.
Words today are seen as flimsy and disposable, like the scraps of fodder expulsed by fast food chains, or the scraps of paper expulsed by the Treasury Department. We do not treat words with respect. Why should we? They can be typed without effort, or procured by the thousands online, at little or no cost. We spell and punctuate them, however we feel like? Instead of following the rules? and we call it progress when ideas r abbrev’d 2 thr lwst cmmn dnmntrs and txtd thru phones, or broadcast online, to no-one in particular, in bursts of 140 characters or less. Because print is inexpensive, we have made the mistake of thinking that words are cheap.
It would be wonderful if this indifference for words were confined to a few ignorants posting YouTube comments. However, I hear that legislators with Harvard degrees would rather sign a long bill than read it; news networks occupy us with story “bytes” that convey nothing very memorable; few bestselling authors nowadays seem able to wield noun and verb with much prowess. This indifference goes right to the top, as they say, afflicting the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated of our culture. For the first time in history, the problem isn’t illiteracy, but aliteracy: the lack of desire to read or to say anything of value.
You see the problem every day. Apostrophes are left out like its no big deal. The overhead slides for the worship song are mispelled, but we forgive. We judge popular books by how we think the author feels, rather than by the ink physically present on the page.
I’m not just talking about punctuation here. I’m talking about when people use the word “devastated” when they mean, “amazed.” I’m talking about when people use the phrase “not per se” when they mean “not exactly.” I’m talking about when people profanely use the word “awesome” when they mean “favorable.” People misuse words sincerely and innocently, simply because they, like the rest of our culture, have not been taught to love them. This frightens me because words are the tool by which we understand reality.
Homeschooling parents might be the biggest hope our culture has.
As a new contributor on this blog, I should let you in on a secret about myself: I cannot understand what people mean unless they actually say it. I think it’s a mental condition called logocentric monophrenia. I respond to the words people say, exactly as they have said them, and I do not add anything from my own imagination (this is a good way to read scripture, too). Sometimes an author or fellow conversant means something entirely different from what he says, so you can imagine that my anal-retentive demand for literality just seems rude. By people who do not love words, I have been called a stickler, mean, strange, abnormal and unkind. In actuality, where words are concerned, I am not these things, rather I am exacting: I believe every word has an exact meaning, and that it should be this meaning and not some other, which is in our head as we say it. I love vocabulary, in the exact meaning of that verb: I do not mean that it is a favorite area of study, or even that it stirs my emotions – though it is, and does. I love vocabulary by defending it, and teaching others to do likewise.
Most people forgive misspeech because they are gracious: they know what was meant. I applaud this grace and try to practice it: insofar as conversations deal with people, it is right to be gracious. If we love people, we will not coldly demand perfection. However, insofar as conversations also deal with words, we must also be exacting. If we love words, we will not let them be used incorrectly in our hearing.
Imagine a world where words were misspoken, in casual conversation, over and over again, uncorrected. Children, who learn to speak primarily through listening, gain an unclear, or even a false understanding of these words. They enter adulthood never realizing their mistake, therefore and thereby passing it on to their children. Some of them grow up to be teachers. Some of them grow up to be politicians. All of them grow up as voters, to put those politicians into offices where they will make shortsighted decisions and repeat the mistakes of history.
All this takes very little imagination.
For a century, the minds behind the “public” school system have told us that words can change according to how society and politicians feel about things. As a case in point, they have changed the meaning even of the word “public” to “controlled by the government” instead of its true meaning: “belonging to the people”. They have told us that words do not have a concrete or unchangeable meaning. But as Anne of Green Gables told us, a rose by the name of skunk cabbage would not smell as sweet; words have meanings whether we are acquainted with them or not – whether, indeed, our hearers are acquainted with them or not. Words are not our slaves. Rather, the man unable to understand words shall be their slave: he will live or die by the words defined for him by “experts,” by presidents, and by Wikipedia; he cannot think. For a century we have been told that word and meaning, sound and idea, are not connected in any meaningful way. We are now reaping the consequences of believing this lie, and ironically, our vocabularies may now be too dulled to put our fingers on exactly why.
I have spent most of this essay talking about the problem rather than the solution, because the biggest part of the solution is seeing that the problem exists at all – namely, that most people today do not understand vocabulary, but only fumble with it. Teach your kids to love vocabulary by exposing them to words all day long. Read books aloud. Talk about the diction used. Point out to your child that he overuses the word “awesome.” Read from the Proverbs, and in King James English – not because it is the best translation, or simply because it is old, (though that in itself is a compelling reason), but because it is the best English available anywhere: it is thus that our native tongue is to be spoken, not through txt mssgs. Pause to talk about the words: it’s okay if you only get through one verse in a day; read Shakespeare and pause again: it’s okay if you only get through one scene in a day.
Today we find ourselves intimidated by the prospect of picking up Shakespeare, Milton, or Dante (and, I dare say, Melville, Hopkins, Herbert, McCarthy, Potok, Twain, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Rabelais) because the difficult vocabulary makes it hard for us to understand what is happening in the story. We are impatient. We want to get to the final page, instead of enjoying the journey there. The world has told us that the events in the story are the important part. In fact, what is happening as you read is not events in a story, but the enrichment of yourself as a human being, through exposure to the life-giving stream of vocabulary on the paper – vocabulary that must be re-read and reflected upon, if it is worth reading at all.
Another word on the King James Version of Holy Scripture, for it possesses such vocabulary: we have been led to believe its language is only intended for some undefined category of “brainy” people – led to believe this by the same culture that stated you were not “smart” enough to educate your own children. Be encouraged that, in fact, there are not “brainy” people for whom reading is easy and “not brainy” people for whom reading is hard (or if there are, the distinction is unimportant). Reading KJV is difficult for everyone. Rather, the two kinds of readers that exist in the world are those who allow this difficulty to enrich them, and those who set it aside and look for something easier. Steeped in “difficult” language from an early age, anyone can become the first kind of reader.
When your child loves words, they will stand in his mind as immutable communicators of truth. More importantly, he will come to think of truth as immutable too, and with each new word he learns will have one more tool to defend it. I propose that a command of vocabulary is the best defense against the moral relativism of our age: the educators, lawmakers, and anti-philosophers of our century have convinced us that the meanings of gender, of logic, of morality are all changeable, because they first convinced us that the communicators of these ideas – words – were changeable. A child who loves words will have a faith that cannot be shaken. Teach your child to read as if life depends on it – as if each page enriches his soul.