Decay in the Language

To every complaint that one may utter about bad language one usually gets the answer, ‘A language must grow.’ This is particularly true when we have some new invention every year or so, needing a new name, but it is of vital importance that we should be able to distinguish between growth and decay. For the difference between growth and decay in language there is fortunately a convenient test, and that test is meaning, the purpose for which language was originally invented. The decay that is affecting our language is taking place among adjectives; so much so that many of these necessary things have already died. One cannot prove that an adjective is dead merely because in so many hundred pages it never appears; the proof is when the need of that particular adjective arises and it is not used, a noun being thrown in to take its place, as a sheet of paper may stop a hole in a window in the absence of a pane of glass.

If you read of ‘a strange man in an expensive car,’ that is no proof that other adjectives equally suitable are dead; but if you read of ‘a mystery man in a luxury car’ that proves that the adjectives ‘mysterious’ and ‘luxurious’ have decayed away, for no one would otherwise use this lumber of nouns. There is, of course, no lack of meaning in ‘a mystery man in a luxury car’; only a lack of grace. I imagine that hundreds of things had names among savages a thousand years before those graces appeared by which the Romans, for instance, built their sentences; and I think that the deepness of the German forests, which the legions did not easily penetrate, is probably responsible for the German tendency to use heaps of nouns to this day, a clumsiness unknown in France and Italy.

When meaning disappears from modern sentences is the moment that a third noun is added to the heap, or even an honest adjective; as for instance, if we were to write ‘a great luxury man,’ it would not be quite clear whether we were intending a man who lived in great luxury or whether a luxury man of large size. If instead of the adjective ‘great’ we have yet another noun, the confusion is liable to be even worse. There are no landmarks to guide one through this confusion, for in a single copy of the Times I read two advertisements: the first of them spoke of ‘best position seats’ — obviously the hyphen, which was not there, should be imagined between the first word and the second; but there are no rules for this clumsy game, because the other advertisement spoke of a ‘great equality myth,’ and in that case the hyphen had to be understood between the second word and the third.

It may not be quite clear to my readers why the hyphen should have come in each case where I have said that it should; but I have had the advantage of reading the context, and have worked it out in that way. The alternative to reading the context is to know exactly which of several ambiguities the writer intends with his row of nouns, and for this purpose you must obviously know just what he intends to say. Does not this mean that in the language of jumbled nouns you can only say what everyone knows already? Then the writer with something new to say will not be understood, even when he has got a hearing.

Two years ago, when a large body of Canadian writers visited London, I pointed out to them at a meeting in the Mansion House some of the symptoms of this decay, and the direction in which it was progressing. I pointed out that instead of speaking of the English Eleven, which was playing cricket then against the Australians, they spoke of the England Eleven, evidently finding some quality in the noun that they could not perceive in the adjective; and I added that they spoke of the captain of this team as the England Eleven Captain, and that his selection was liable to be described as England Eleven Captain Selection, and that any difficulty in this selection might be written of nowadays as an England Eleven Captain Selection Difficulty. I then warned this gathering of writers that, if they did not all exert themselves to put some check upon this particular decay, the time would come when people would be writing of an England Eleven Captain Selection Difficulty Rumor. I hope that this day has not yet come, but we are hovering upon the brink of it, and the careful investigator may very likely be able to discover in modern writers a case of six nouns jostling each other, like lost railway trucks without couplings bumping each other noisily on a hill.

Let us not look down towards what our language is coming to, for the drop is too giddy and we may lose our heads, but let us look up to the heights from which we have fallen and, by reading good writers of a few decades ago, see how far we have slithered in a very short time. Those writers, if writing of the affairs of to-day, would have to learn a few new words, like ‘radiogram’ and the noun ‘aerial,’ though they could teach us how to pronounce the latter word correctly; on the other hand, a translation of any of their writings into the language that I am complaining of would show how much we have lost. The opening lines of Paradise Lost might go, in prose, to-day something like this: ‘Of the first man disobedience and the forbidden tree fruit, whose death taste brought on world mortality — Milton was thirtysix years old when he wrote this — and our all woe, sing, Heaven muse, who on the Horeb or Sinai mystery top inspired, etc., etc.’ It is surely apposite to point out that we think a lot of ourselves and of our age and may well wish to tell other ages about it; but, if we lose our adjectives, our writings will be no more able to explain ourselves to the future than a wall would endure which was built of rows of bricks without mortar. The bricks themselves are deteriorating (if we liken nouns to bricks), as well as the construction of the sentences.

Take the word ‘weather’: it was well enough understood by our ancestors, and had a big share in shaping our destinies; but nowadays the word is never used without being propped up and supported by the ridiculous word ‘conditions.’ It makes me think of an old wall supported by a broom or a disused cupboard or the ruins of a rusty perambulator; yet you cannot harm a wall by propping it up with absurdities, whereas you can harm a word by such odds and ends. A people that has never seen the word ‘weather’ used without that old clothes-prop leaning against it will soon be unable to recognize it when the rubbish is cleared away; and so a fine word will be lost to a people that surely has need of it. Or can anybody show me a case where the words ‘weather conditions’ have ever been written by anyone in which the plain honest word ‘ weather ’ did not say all that was needed? I will maintain that in one per cent of all the cases in which the words ‘weather conditions’ are used the word ‘weather’ is equally good alone, and that in ninetynine per cent of these cases it is better, leaving none at all in which the word ‘conditions’ does not waste printer’s ink.

A dead adjective that I lament perhaps more than any other is the word ‘hostile,’ the disappearance of which throws the word ‘enemy’ from its place to do the work of the lost adjective. You read no more of the enemy’s troops or the enemy’s position; it would be the ‘enemy troops’ and the ‘enemy position’; and such a line as Kipling’s, —

When the guns of the enemy wheel into line, would no longer be written. One has only to read any history of any war prior to the Great War to see how a certain splendor has now been lost from such narratives by the disappearance of the enemy himself, his presence being denoted only by this false adjective, doing work that does not properly belong to it.

And then we have the form of sentence nowadays which rather resembles a wall with a bicycle wheel built into it, or a plum pudding in which a watch and chain has been included in the baking. For instance, such a sentence as ‘Lord Dunsany has sent an article to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly ’ would seem a bit bald to the ultramodern writer. He would rather say, ‘Lord Dunsany has sent an article — he was born when Queen Victoria was on the throne — to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly.‘ The meaning is not hidden here, but it is jerky; it is the kind of thing to read in a motor going fast on a bad road, or in a swaying railway-carriage, whence the style probably originated.