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
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
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.
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.