Caring for Words, VIII: Witnesses to Hope


On New Year’s Day, with the Twelve Days of Christmas more than half-spent, it’s time to remember that a diseased language may be restored to health. However long it may take to persuade politicians, parties, and other political organizations to change their ways, readers and writers who care for words can cultivate healthy language habits. Some of these are practical matters of reading and writing. Others are more complex and demanding. Great voices from the Western tradition call to us. Long-excluded voices – voices that survived and even flourished under the most dreadful conditions – are ready to share unwelcome but necessary truths.

Restoring a language to health cannot mean reconstructing an idealized past. There is much from our tongue’s history we should conserve, including some treasures discarded in the name of a ill-defined but zealously imposed “progress.” Yet the past is strewn with linguistic corpses best left entombed, remembered as cautionary tales, mistakes along the way: alienating names, hateful descriptions, abstractions we kill for. Leavening the best of the Western tradition with words and voices that will no longer be marginalized – that’s a challenge full of promise and peril. I have too much confidence in human imperfection to believe we will set things aright, once and for all. Pessimist that I am, I have reason to hope.

With due respect to Orwell (see below), language is an organism as well as an instrument, or say it’s an ecosystem with a particular genius. It bears cultivation but not exploitation. The latter only worsens the malady we wish to heal. There are voices aplenty who show us ways to cultivate a healthier language, who “consult the genius of the place,”* as they go about their business. From their witness, I draw radical hope.

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

  • -George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
  • Still I Rise

    You may write me down in history
    With your bitter, twisted lies,
    You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

    Does my sassiness upset you?
    Why are you beset with gloom?
    ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
    Pumping in my living room.

    Just like moons and like suns,
    With the certainty of tides,
    Just like hopes springing high,
    Still I’ll rise.

    Did you want to see me broken?
    Bowed head and lowered eyes?
    Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
    Weakened by my soulful cries?

    Does my haughtiness offend you?
    Don’t you take it awful hard
    ’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
    Diggin’ in my own backyard.

    You may shoot me with your words,
    You may cut me with your eyes,
    You may kill me with your hatefulness,
    But still, like air, I’ll rise.

    Does my sexiness upset you?
    Does it come as a surprise
    That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
    At the meeting of my thighs?

    Out of the huts of history’s shame
    I rise
    Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
    I rise
    I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
    Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

    Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
    I rise
    Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
    I rise
    Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
    I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
    I rise
    I rise
    I rise.

  • Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
  • * Alexander Pope, “Epistle To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington”

    Image: Maya Angelou

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