Words equal ideas.
In a lecture about Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language and his book 1984 I used to do the following exercise with my classes—everybody follow along.
Okay, everybody think of the word “color”. What comes to mind?
Now everyone think of the word “red”. What do you think about?
Now think about “dark red”. What do you think about now?
Now think about “candy-apple red.” What images do you get?
Now think about “crimson”, or “vermillion”, or “burgundy”. What do you think aboutnow?
You may notice that the more specific word gets the more specific image in your head. The more specific word gets the more specific idea. And the more vague the word, the more amorphous the idea.
So what if suddenly, one day, we were told that in order to “simplify” our discourse, in order to make it so everybody could understand what one person was saying, we had to eliminate the words “crimson”, “vermillion”, and “burgundy” from our vocabularies?
What would happen to our mental images of those things? Where would they go? Would there be another combination of words that could bring them back?
In Orwell’s 1984, the hero worked for the Ministry of Truth, which (among other functions) was in charge of eliminating all but government approved words. One of the first things the Ministry of Truth went after was the word “bad” and all of its synonyms—so anything from “undesirable” to “catastrophic” to “devastating” to “heartbreaking” was all labeled with various degrees of “ungood.” Sure, there was “plus ungood” and “double plus ungood” and “double double plus ungood”—but think about it. Think about the things that our brains do when someone uses the word “heartbreaking” as opposed to the word “double plus ungood”. Think about the emotional layers we’ve removed, the moments of the reader’s or listener’s experience that we’ve taken out of the equation, by taking away the word.
I know that in modern publishing it’s important to go for clean and uncluttered prose—to not allow ourselves the luxury of rolling around for too long in the glory of the words. I’ve recently been forced to go back into my own writing archives, and have cringed at the raging bouts of purple prose that I fed with bullshit and watered with my own self-gratification and ego. So yes—an overindulgence in words can obscure our meaning, can blunt the edge of the emotion we’re trying to use like a blade.
An overindulgence in words can become ungood.
But if we’re paring down our prose, honing our verbal knives, let’s never forget that the precise word can do what a paragraph of vague explanation cannot. Be leery of trying to appease someone—even a beta reader or an editor—by eliminating a precise, perfect word because it has become rare or little used. As the people who traffic in words, it’s our job to occasionally wander off of the freeways of the basic, workaday words like “rotting”, “wonderful”, and “chill” and into the little used footpaths of delicious words like “minatory”, “exemplary”, and “coolth” (which really is a word, my editor assures me so.)
And never, ever let someone tell you that we need to “eliminate a word from our vocabulary”.
Even if it’s a bad word. Even if it’s a word of such horrible implications that we wish mankind never had the capacity to think this word. Even if the word will never rattle from our keyboards or be uttered from our lips—it needs to stay in our vocabulary. Because if we have no word for that kind of evil, then we have no concept of the evil itself. And if we have no concept of the evil—we have no way to fight it. If words are our weapons, we need to know the weapons of the ideas we abhor, so we can hone our words.
If we have no words to express an idea, to cut to the bone, to heal with a thought, to right a wrong, to fix a broken thing—we are left as inarticulate as apes, flailing our fists in the air, wreaking physical destruction when the appropriate words would have made angels of us instead.
Writers—yes, genre writers too—are the keepers of words. We are the ones who plant them, nourish them, watch them grow into great and wonderful—and hopefully diverse—fruit. It is our job as gardeners to grow and appreciate the various trees—even if it is a fruit we cannot stomach and will not eat. If we cannot see the tree, understand the tree, we will not know it for the evil it is when it springs up as a volunteer among our midst. To raze that tree down and burn it to the root will only make us blind and ignorant of the harm it can do. We need to be smarter than that. If the fruit of the tree is bad, we need to grow better trees, trees people want to eat from in order to feed their hungry minds.
We mustn’t let anyone—politicians, critics, parents—carelessly prune and decimate our words.
If words are our calling, our vocation, our faith, this is, in its way, something sacred. It’s a trust our future generations place in us to not let ideas die.