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09.01.07

Ode to Words

Last week we spoke of the healing power of poetry, especially through its undulating, soothing rhythms.  This brings to mind a famous phrase from Keats’ epic poem “Endymion”:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
It seems especially appropriate at this time of year when we think of those luminaries who have died in the past year and reflect on the significance of their lives to society, culture, and to us.

Among literary lights extinguished in 2008 are Arthur C. Clarke, one the greatest writers of science fiction, famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Michael Crichton, a physician who used his knowledge of science to create fantastic and terrifyingly real thrillers, as he did in Jurassic Park.

Margaret Truman Daniels, daughter of Harry Truman, wrote a long running series of murder mysteries set in various Washington landmarks.  William F. Buckley, Jr., perhaps the most intellectual of political writers, was founder and editor of National Review and also author of many mystery-thrillers.  Donald Westlake was a prolific author of screenplays and novels, among them the very funny mystery capers starring John Dortmunder.  Tim Russert, best known as moderator of Meet the Press, wrote a moving tribute to his father, Big Russ and Me, and Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.

Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chronicled the abuses of the Soviet prison system in The Gulag Archipelago and set in motion forces that brought down communism.  Pultizer Prize winner Studs Terkel chronicled the lives of everyday Americans living through the Depression and war by letting them tell their own stories in Hard Times and other collections.  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, gave the most important lecture of all on the subject of what to do with the rest of your life, which was published as The Last Lecture, also available on YouTube.

Comedian George Carlin made us laugh at ourselves and at our sensibilities and sensitivities to words.  We will miss him and them all.

But are these lights really extinguished?  Like Keats’ things of loveliness or the figures forever fired on his Grecian urn, they remain in our memories through their written words.  Their words are preserved on the pages of books for us to read today, tomorrow, a decade from now, so we may be struck anew by their crispness, their freshness, their beauty, their truth.  And some float eternally in the Internet ether.  George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine is viewable on YouTube.

Some words, on the other hand, may be best not preserved.  Or, at least, best not used over and over again.  This week, Lake Superior State University has compiled, from 5000 nominations, its 34th annual List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

Among the no-nos are “maverick”, “from Wall Street to Main Street”, “game changing”, all of which are very familiar if you watched any of the election campaign. 

Also on the list is “carbon footprint”, “green”,  “going green”, and any variation thereof.  "If I see one more corporation declare itself 'green,' I'm going to start burning tires in my backyard," wrote Ed Hardiman of Bristol, Va., in his submission.

Words related to the economy have worn out many readers.
"I am so tired of hearing about everything affecting 'Main Street.' I know that with the 'Wall Street' collapse, the comparison is convenient, but really, let's find another way to talk about everyman or the middle class, or even, heaven forbid, 'Joe the Plumber.'" wrote Stacey from Knoxville, Tenn.
What other words or phrases have been verboten by LSSU?  A spokesman said, "'At this point in time' was on the first list in 1976 and it continues to be nominated every year. People still hate it."  Additional too-familiar winners (not in quotes): absolutely, awesome, back in the day, been there done that, dude, first dude, each and every, git-er-done, having said that, hello!?, it is what it is, perfect storm, prioritize, quality time, smoking gun, surreal, thinking outside the box, truthiness, under the bus, whatever, your call is very important to us.
And what are the predictions for next year?  Watch out for any “meltdown”, economic or otherwise.
The best advice for writing and word use is still William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s classic manual, The Elements of Style.  “Make every word tell,” wrote Strunk.  One chapter was simply “Omit needless words!”  Originally published for Strunk’s college students in 1918, this primer has been issued in five editions, most recently a charmingly illustrated version published in 2005.  It would make a perfect high school graduation gift for any college-bound student and belongs on the desk of every writer.  Check it out from the library before you write your next paper!  To word lovers, this is indeed a thing of beauty, a joy forever.

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