I’ve been doing some research this week that necessitated perusing the microfilmed records of several divorces of the early 1900’s. To say that it has been interesting would be a gross understatement. I’ve enjoyed it almost as much as eating chocolate! Not only have I found some names and dates and details I needed about the people, but I’ve found a wealth of information about the time period itself. What struck me most was the language of the papers. I actually had to drag my dictionary off the shelf to look up a few words.
I’ve read before that our language has been “dumbed down” for years. Most of the media doesn’t use big words anymore because we simply don’t know what they mean. The average newspaper is written at an eighth grade level. I think some magazines aim for fifth grade! Our language has also become more blunt and tactless. I saw a headline on a woman’s magazine yesterday, in front of the register, that I won’t even dignify by repeating. And cursing? Cursing is absolutely rampant. My own children use words I would never think of using. (They didn’t hear them at home!) I can’t remember my father cursing very much. My grandfather did when he was drunk. However, many of my kindergartners, here and at previous schools, have literally “heard it all”. They can use words that I honestly didn’t even hear until I was an adult. What has happened to us?
The divorce papers I’ve been reading accuse the defendant of abusing his wife with “vile and opprobrious” epithets. Opprobrious comes from opprobrium: 1. something that brings disgrace 2. public disgrace or ill fame that follows from conduct considered grossly wrong or vicious. That’s what I love about language! If you study it and use it effectively you can choose a specific word that means exactly what you want to convey. Opprobrious is so much more descriptive than “bad” or even “inappropriate”, which is probably what today’s version would say.
The plaintiff speaks of “mental humiliation” caused by being cursed, both in private and in public. It seems amusing to read about cursing as a reason for a divorce, but it is the identity of the speaker of vile words that causes us pain, not the words themselves. Some stranger off the street can call me something opprobrious and I’ll be a little angry about being unjustly labeled by an idiot. However, let some member of the family do it and I’ll be heartbroken. We want those we love to treat us with respect.
That is the tragedy of the decline of our language. What we say in public eventually affects what we say at home. The words we use at home ultimately affect those we use in public. Our public and private vocabulary can merge into something new, and not necessarily better. Along with the lack of specific words comes a bland disregard for true meaning. And with casual cursing comes a lack of respect for others. We lower our language skills to the level used by the least educated and least respectful. We settle for gray and insipid and stupid, when what we need is vivid and original and clever. Our level of language affects our level of understanding and empathy because our communication lacks specificity.
I’m just as guilty of this as the next person. My usually mode of communication is probably at the level of “chit chat”. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this blog so much. It gives me the opportunity to focus my thoughts and occasionally aim for profound instead of mundane. I don’t often achieve that goal, but at least I get a chance to try.
Have a serendipitous day!
Note: There is also a typo in the divorce papers- at least I assume it is- that is ironic. It says “although he had abundant means and was able to provide her a comfortable home, he then neglected and refused to furnish her with a home in which to love…”