Canned Language

A GREAT deal has been written concerning slang as a menace to the English language. The danger, they tell us, is that a slang expression, which may have been apt enough in its first application, comes in time to be used to cover a number of shades of meaning. Thus the user of slang narrows his vocabulary, loses or fails to develop a nice sense of the meanings of words, and is an agent in the impoverishment of his mother tongue.

But there is a tendency to-day toward a repetition of various words, phrases, and expressions, which — through constant use — have become almost meaningless and unutterably wearisome, a tendency which seems to constitute a far more real danger to the language.

Listen to the conversation of the people round you, the speeches made at the societies to which you may belong, the sermons or lectures you hear, and make a collection of those expressions which you hear more often, say, than three or four times a day. See whether a day passes without your hearing the verb ‘appeal to’ used half a dozen times. Everything either ‘appeals to’ us nowadays, or does not ‘appeal to’ us. Try to flee beyond earshot of‘uplift,’ ‘atmosphere,’ ‘inspiration,’ and others of that vague but noble type. Note, for instance, how our good word ‘ideal’ has come to be used alike by the prophet and the glib advertiser of a brand of ready-made clothing. You will further observe that there are no houses nowadays: there are only homes. Your friend has a ‘beautiful home’ in the suburbs. The real-estate agent will sell you a like ‘beautiful home’ with hot-water heating and a garage in the rear. Ignorant people are wont to taunt the French with the fact that they have no equivalent for our word‘home.’ Yet we debase the word by a thousand trivial uses.

Again, causes no longer produce or contribute toward a result; they ‘make for’ it. There is no longer a great difference between two things; there is always a ‘far cry’ between them, whatever that may be. There are two phrases used by alleged lovers of nature that make one long for the decent reserve of the classical treatment of that subject,— ‘God’s out-of-doors,’ and ‘getting near to Nature’s heart,’ — expressions likely at the thousandth repetition to arouse the hearer’s worst passions.

Mark the next man or woman you hear discussing some one of high character. Unless the speaker be a person of more than ordinary strength of mind, he will no more be able to avoid closing with, ‘It is a benediction to know him,’ than you can help slipping on an icy side-walk. Yet it was once an excellent comment that probably conveyed some meaning during its early conversational career.

Cant is perhaps too severe a word to apply to some of these terms, but empty and paralyzing to conversation they indubitably are. Who is valiant enough to carry on the discussion beyond that ‘benediction’? Your companion’s well-meant remark that the sermon was one of great ‘uplift’ saps all vitality from the criticism. And what mere mortal can rise above the utter banality of those two words, so innocent in appearance, so diabolical in their combined action, ‘beautiful thought.’ Plato’s Republic was a beautiful thought. Henry Van Dyke is all beautiful thoughts. Emerson and Edward Bok are rivals in their output of beautiful thoughts. Carnegie has one every time he founds a library, and it is a beautiful thought to think that even the humblest of us sometimes has one.

The ancients provided for the relief of citizens exasperated by these vain repetitions. The man who was tired of hearing Aristides called ‘the Just’ could vote for his ostracism. But the law affords us no protection against the ‘Eminent Publicist.’ A student once confided to me that he would have continued his course in modern languages, had it not been for the ‘Sturm and Drang’ period. Of what the term applied to, he appeared to be in the most appalling ignorance; like Aristides’s opponent, he was weary of the ‘damnable iteration.’

Now there is a strict but unwritten etiquette which controls the use of slang. However it may have offended your ears and your prejudices to hear the sweet girl undergraduate remark that there was ‘some class’ to her English professor, at least you know that her mode of expression will have changed within a few weeks. Another no less objectionable phrase may take the place of the earlier one, but at any rate it will be new, and will convey her meaning in all probability with a high degree of precision. She will as little think of using this season’s slang next spring as she will of wearing a peachbasket hat. Moreover, even the most inveterate user of slang realizes that it has its time and place. There are few who cannot free themselves from it under stress of great events and emotions. But not so with that other tyrant of language. It respects no sex, no time, no place. Your reedy-voiced, high-school valedictorian is a victim of the beautiful thought along with the hoary-headed philosopher.

The tendency seems to result from that effort to economize time and space and thought which we like to attribute to the stress of modern life. (Another phrase!) We seek to get the equivalent of ten pounds of the best beef from a teaspoonful of Nutto-Vito. We want no early Victorian type of novel in three volumes; we have time only for a short story now and then — a story with an automobile in it to make it move quickly. We seek a philosophy of life so brief that it can be printed on a small card and inclosed within the chaste limits of a passe-partout frame, before which, as it hangs above our desk, our friends will pause and exclaim, ‘What a beautiful thought!’ We are too hurried or too indolent to clothe our ideas — or hide our lack of them — in a few plain words of our own choosing, and use instead these pitiful tatters of language worn threadbare by others.

Like many great reformers, the writer has no remedy for the evil, unless perhaps to suggest the occasional contemplation of the simple and noble diction of the multiplication-table. It does not state that it is a beautiful thought, calculated to appeal to the best in us, that human experience goes to prove that if the number two be linked or conjoined with its fellow, or increased by another two, four will be the resultant quantity. It says that twice two are four.