Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Lake Superior State University has released its latest installment of the banned words list.

Setting aside the strangeness of these kinds of newspaper pieces, where they talk about these kinds of lists as having some kind of authority, when the authority actually comes from the newspaper article claiming it as authoritative….uh, anyway, it is a cute piece, making its way around the world, a cheap and effective piece of PR for a smallish university in the AmericanSault.

Looking over the list, I was unmoved until I saw “wordsmithing”. My Oxford Concise lists wordsmithing, and I can readily see some nice places for it, when one wishes to allude to the practice of writing. There is something nice about the tactile sense this term evokes if one were to look at something I had written and said to me, “Yes, Andrew, you’re quite the wordsmith”.

But we never hear that, do we? No, “wordsmith”, verb or noun, has become a replacement term for good old value neutral “writing”. And as a professional hack writer, I hear and see this godforsaken word all the time.

Why do I hate it so? For the same reasons I like it, actually. The people who use this word are typically people who haven’t a clue about good or bad writing. So when they ask me to wordsmith something, they are not paying me a compliment except in the cheapest possible way.

Perhaps I’m strange, but I prefer to earn compliments rather than have them dished out to me by someone who went to some management workshop where they heard this word, this touchy feely allusion to the art of writing,when, for the most part in the corporate world, well-crafted writing is pilloried as “wordy” or “too sophisticated”.

The rub: The people who use wordsmithing in my experience are the same people who obsess over the malignancy that is the plain language movement and its wordsmithed cousin, clear language. In other words, fancy turns of phrase are alright top-down, but the rabble need active voiced single-syllable tracts, or how will they ever learn the language? How will they ever understand us, the educated elite?

I despise this mindset. If we wish people to learn “our” language, then isn’t the surest path to learning it cramming English language learners full of vocabulary? I know I’ve digressed terribly from my initial point about the banned words, but this list, and the plain language movement, are all expressions of power, and of who wields it.

These kinds of lists are all about finding words in new sites, places that do not always suit them. And this sounds a lot like Wittgenstein, doesn't it?


Gawain said...

there was once something called Simple English -- designed by I A Richard(son?), i think. i thought it was a brilliant idea: it was not for the natives -- the lower orders you imagine. it was for all the rest of us who have to use this damn language to get things done with it, but would really prefer to wordsmith in Swahili or some such; and when it comes to English, just want a good and simple tool with which to open cans and the like.

Andrew W. said...

Gawain, there was a creature called Basic English, developed and proselytized by C.K. Ogden, the translator of the Tractatus, among other things.

He went to great lengths to sell it as an auxilliary language a l'Esperanto, but to no avail.

I should say that I heartily support these kinds of efforts. However, the plain language movement sets out more to limit language than to ease its use.

Gawain said...

there is a simple english (basic english?) version of the wikipedia.

well, i refuse to say anything political, but the issue isnt classist -- some of our *leaders* can't speak (and think, either) and trying to teach them the complexities of the English language is probably a hopeless proposition. getting some of our great leaders to speak in think in clear english might not be a bad idea, actually. :)