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By Garland Greever & Joseph M. Bachelor

Sometimes a dexterous use of words appears to us to be only a kind of parlor trick. And sometimes it is just that. The command of a wide vocabulary is in truth an accomplishment, and like any other
accomplishment it may be used for show.

But not necessarily. Just as a man may have money without "flashing" it, or an extensive wardrobe without sporting gaudy neckties or wearing a dress suit in the morning, so may he possess linguistic resources without making a caddish exhibition of them. Indeed the more distant he stands from verbal bankruptcy, the less likely he is to indulge in needless display.

Again, glibness of speech sometimes awakens our distrust. We like actions rather than words; we prefer that character, personality, and kindly feelings should be their own mouthpiece. So be it. But there are thoughts and emotions properly to be shared with other people, yet incapable of being revealed except through language. It is only when language is insincere--when it expresses lofty sentiments or generous sympathies, yet springs from designing selfishness--that it justly arouses misgivings.

Power over words, like power of any other sort, is for use, not abuse.

That it sometimes is abused must not mislead us into thinking that it should in itself be scorned or neglected.

Our contempt and distrust do not mean that our fundamental ideas about language are unsound. Beneath our wholesome dislike for shallow facility and insincerity of speech, we have a conviction that the mastery of words is a good thing, not a bad. We are therefore unwilling to take the vow of linguistic poverty. If we lack the ability to bend words to our use, it is from laziness, not from scruple.

We desire to speak competently, but without affectation. We know that if our diction rises to this dual standard, it silently distinguishes us from the sluggard, the weakling, and the upstart. For such diction is not to be had on sudden notice, like a tailor-made suit. Nor can it, like such a suit, deceive anybody as to our true status. A man's utterance reveals what he is. It is the measure of his inward attainment. The assertion has been made that for a man to express himself freely and well in his native language is the surest proof of his culture. Meditate the saying. Can you think of a proof that is surer?

But a man's speech does more than lend him distinction. It does more than reveal to others what manner of man he is. It is an instrument as well as an index. It is an agent--oftentimes indeed it is the agent--of his influence upon others. How silly are those persons who oppose words to things, as if words were not things at all but air-born unrealities! Words are among the most powerful realities in the world. You vote the Republican ticket. Why? Because you have studied the issues of the campaign and reached a well-reasoned conclusion how the general interests may be served? Possibly. But nine times in ten it will be because of that _word_ Republican. You may believe that in a given instance the Republican cause or candidate is inferior; you may have nothing personally to lose through Republican defeat; yet you squirm and twist and seek excuses for casting a Republican ballot. Such is the power--aye, sometimes the tyranny--of a word. The word _Republican_ has not been selected invidiously.

Democrat would have served as well. Or take religious words--Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, or what not. A man who belongs, in person or by proxy, to one of the sects designated may be more indifferent to the institution itself than to the word that represents it. Thus you may attack in his presence the tenets of Presbyterianism, for example, but you must be wary about calling the Presbyterian name. Mother, the flag--what sooner than an insult coupled with these terms will rouse a man to fight? But does that man kiss his mother, or salute the flag, or pay much heed to either? Probably not. Words not realities? With what realities must we more carefully reckon? Words are as dangerous as dynamite, as beneficent as brotherhood. An unfortunate word may mean a plea rejected, an enterprise baffled, half the world plunged into war. A fortunate word may open a triple-barred door, avert a disaster, bring thousands of people from jealousy and hatred into cooeperation and goodwill.

Nor is it solely on their emotional side that men may be affected by words. Their thinking and their aesthetic nature also--their hard sense and their personal likes and dislikes--are subject to the same influence. You interview a potential investor; does he accept your proposition or not? A prospective customer walks into your store; does he buy the goods you show him? You enter the drawing room of one of the elite; are you invited again and again? Your words will largely decide--your words, or your verbal abstinence. For be it remembered that words no more than dollars are to be scattered broadcast for the sole reason that you have them. The right word should be used at the right time--and at that time only. Silence is oftentimes golden. Nevertheless there are occasions for us to speak. Frequent occasions.

To be inarticulate then may mean only embarrassment. It may--some day it will--mean suffering and failure. That we may make the most of the important occasions sure to come, we must have our instruments ready. Those instruments are words. He who commands words commands events--commands men.

 


 

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