The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Sir James Murray’s estimate that the dictionary would be completed by 1891 proved to be wildly optimistic; it was not until 1928, well after his death, that final volume was published. The last printed edition of the OED was published in twenty volumes in 1989 and is now only available to subscribers electronically, a medium which allows for almost instantaneous updates and amendments.

Citations and definitions of each word were laboriously transferred on to slips of paper, around three tons worth by his death, from which they were eventually distilled into entries for the dictionary. To speed the process up Murray sent an Appeal for Readers around the Anglophone world asking for volunteers to supply him with suitable quotations illustrating how various English words were used over the centuries. Respondents were asked to avoid concordances of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Edmund Burke as they had already been trawled through. One of the most prolific postal contributors was William Chester Minor, a murderer staying at Her Majesty’s pleasure at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, who sent in over 12,000 citations.

Almost anything related to language is of interest to me.  One of the most peculiar lectures in which I engaged in undergraduate studies at Glendon Hall, Toronto was one headed by Professor Michael Gregory who taught what was then an extraordinarily fashionable theme embracing usage as the critical element of language rather than the historical grammatical rules I had learned in prep school as a boy.

Words can promote a harsh image. In some instances the usage is as alarming as attending a job interview in the nude, revealing far more than one would care to know or share. To shelter from the embarrassment and abrasiveness of words we adopt variations which insulate us from the undisguised meaning. Consider the popular idiom for war which includes such sanitized editions as “taking out“, “eliminating” or “eradicating”. On the subject of killing we are all too familiar with what are essentially state–sponsored terms such as execution, abortion and euthanasia. Somewhere in the middle of the nuances of murder and war are those applied to the annihilation of animals, the least offensive being “slaughter” or the more disturbing term “abattoir” whose etymology is the blunt French word “battre“, to beat down.

The exercise of caution or discipline in the use of words is more often than not a matter of social convention calculated to cushion the thrust of the meaning. The camouflage isn’t always to hide a harmful or displeasing sentiment; it may cover up affection such as when one remarks that so-and-so is “not at all unattractive” (the use of the double-negative to confound the soppiness). By contrast there are as many slick social codes which are designed to level a boom without apparent brusqueness as in “I can bear the deprivation of his company“. These literary manipulations are dismissed as niceties.

Specificity is another mark of candour.  Very often people avoid saying it like it is by avoiding the use of precision.  When requesting something from another person it assists all sides to have a date by which the performance is either desired or expected.  If nothing else the particularity removes the possibility of ambivalence. The same applies to any expression of choice; viz., it narrows the focus. The outer edge of frank communication is categorically to disclose a preference or displeasure.  Though it may initially be perceived as offensive, rather it encourages parties to address a matter without obfuscation and resulting delay.  Direct talk in that sense is an expedient and it is particularly apt in the commercial context (though one has to wonder why lawyers have traditionally been so slow on the uptake – an evolution which is thankfully changing albeit with glacial speed).

Sometimes what we say isn’t so much about what we want to say as about how we want to say it.  In this context “saying it like it is” is more a matter of presentation than fact. Appropriately the premiere consideration in intercourse isn’t always verbal information but rather material appearance. Consider the medium of fashion where some people just feel more comfortable relating to the world through the veneer of certain apparel. The theme needn’t be a “statement” necessarily; in fact it can as easily be an “understatement” again depending upon the objective. The skilful use of couture can admit to as much calculation as the supremacy of dialogue.  It is no accident that the adage “clothes maketh the man” persists even reluctantly in the minds of adherents of casual-everything.

Neither is the thread of deliberation in dissemination always what you want to say or impart.  Often it is the nature of one’s audience which predicts the vernacular. In that respect the admonition to “say it like it is” isn’t so much a provocation of truthfulness as it is the urging of directness.  Some people haven’t the inclination or energy to consume intelligence in any form other than what for them it its customary rendition. If one’s hope is to share ideas then the options for fashion or discretion are wasted permutations upon blunt truths. Not everyone is titillated by literary gymnastics.  This is not to say however that one should talk down to others. The entire ambience of the moment must be weighed when considering how to approach the message. Just as there are those who abhor fancy language there are others who appreciate the ennoblement of variety; and no one has cornered either market by strength of their background or education. The juxtaposition of clinical and colloquial language can be a stimulating alternative.

The reputed “lapse into the vernacular” – though mockingly intended to diminish what is often vulgar language – is if nothing else entertaining. Colloquial language is guaranteed to commandeer the attention of one’s audience.  My introduction to the device was through J. D. Salinger in “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951):

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap but I don’t feel like going into it. In the first place, that stuff bores me and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice –I’m not saying that–but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.”

The talent for plain-speaking isn’t confined to reclusives such as Salinger. Political operatives such as Donald J. Trump and Richard Painter have successfully sculpted this particular jargon:

Richard Painter

Professor Richard W. Painter received his B.A., summa cum laude, in history from Harvard University and his J.D. from Yale University, where he was an editor of the Yale Journal on Regulation. Following law school, he clerked for Judge John T. Noonan Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and later practiced at Sullivan Cromwell in New York City and Finn Dixon Herling in Stamford.

Painter dignifies the use of everyday language by speaking intelligibly without being either pompous or incomprehensible.  He most certainly does not mince his words and he has no time for Trump’s pettifoggery (which apparently reverberates with his “deplorables”).

Language can be an impressionistic painting, a swirl of words which “paint a picture” by their accumulative message.  In modern linguistic analysis promoted by the likes of Prof. Michael J. Gregory of Leeds University lexical sets are what define language, a collection of words whose overtones or intonations prompt a particular interpretation. A popular example familiar to most is the language used in a clerical environment. Though often stilted and approaching anachronism the words generally capture an undeniable flavour even without the specificity of definition; the words can be inspirational by virtue of their nexus (in the same way that a tasty meal consists of a combination of unidentifiable spices).

“On Thursday, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told by others in the Trump administration that the use of seven specific words and phrases would be prohibited. On the list are the words “vulnerable,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” The decision has not only been deemed as reckless and dangerous, but an offense to the scientific community.”

Lastly it mustn’t be asserted that the intent of all language is to say it like it is, but often just the opposite.  Obfuscation is a considered tool in the arsenal of retail communication.  In matters of interpretation it is here just as important as elsewhere to trust one’s instincts.  If it doesn’t make sense, it probably doesn’t!  At least it is worthwhile requesting a clarification.