A beautiful sentence recently caught my eye in the latest edition of Intelligent Life in a short piece on the 747 by Mark Vanhoenacker
“The four engines turned steadily through each mile’s new air, while the snow-dusted deserts of north-west China slowly conjured themselves from the darkness.”
I LOVE words!! As a teenager actually I kept a list of words that I particularly liked and those that I detested just for fun. This unusual obsession with expression was fuelled by my parents who shared my mania: My father often tossed a word out in conversation across the dinner table and in the event that neither my sister or I immediately queried it, he would request a definition and that we use it in another sentence.
Inability to do so would result in a sprint for the library and instead of further discussion about the day’s activities, we would spend the next 10 minutes poring over the dictionary and experimenting with the new addition to our vocabulary.
For example: “I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose the purple curtains with the orange carpet and see if anyone actually vomited when they entered the room ”
My mother was a walking dictionary: Ask her the meaning of a word, or how to spell it and you were quite likely to receive more information than you hoped for. For example – “Intransigent – meaning uncompromising / stubborn. As in, I am intransigent about you cleaning your room once a week because hygiene is important.” (Please do note the deftness with which she managed to interpose a moral lesson!)
This interest in the power of language to clarify or confuse provides much humour and entertainment in the mundane course of events.
When I worked for a Recruitment Agency I used to delight in finding linguistic horrors in the CV’s we received. One noteworthy reference stated effusively that, “Susan can be relied upon to produce the gods.” (which illustrates the error of relying too heavily on your wordprocessor’s spell check.)
Another candidate explained, “Fortunately for me I managed to find employment even under the most trying times. This was not of a lack of incompetency on my side, but rather a case of applying a last in fist out policy at the various schools where I have been employed.” I ended up unsure whether it was her unabashed incompetence or her unrestrained belligerence that resulted in her problems!!
In another job I had a boss who managed to mangle – no, I think that should be massacre – English expressions on a regular basis. On one memorable occasion he managed to come up with something along the following lines: “Dave is a rough marble but he has no idea how hard it is working at the cold face, pacifically dealing with the clients. He’s being manipulised into thinking that if we find the technical hinge we’ll be able to take the bull by the udders and fix it. The problem is that contails involving Mary and while she has great pose there’s too many bridges under the water. The long and the wide of it is we already did our utterbest.”
Admittedly he was a second language English speaker but it made keeping a straight face in meetings pretty challenging!!
I still keep a list of my favourite words and find myself entranced when someone finds a particularly vivid way of expressing something. In one of her emails my mom describes the garden she returned to after her holiday as follows: “The frost put an end to the smattering of colour left in the begonias and they now lie devastated in their beds.”
The message for aspiring Public Speakers is that the words you use have the power to vastly enhance or calamitously undermine your message. Make sure you choose them wisely!