Tongues of Iron and Silk: Why We Should Cultivate a Rich Vocabulary

Some of my earliest memories are of my father telling the story of Saladin’s encounter with King Richard of England, who was on Crusade at the time.  While I was too little to grasp the ideas surrounding rapacious conquest and wars of ideology with their complex roots of greed and lust for power, some things stand out clearly in memory.  During a test of strength with their swords, Richard showed mighty proficiency with his  broadsword. He severed cleanly the handle of a steel mace  set up for this purpose.  When it was Saladin’s turn, he unsheathed his scimitar and laid a diaphanous silk scarf across its edge. With a whisper, the silk parted. Recently, I found a version of the story online, and Saladin supposedly followed this test of arms with a bit of advice to the invading monarch:

“It is not always to the powerful that comes the victory. I know not which is best, thy mighty blow that severs the steel, or this thin blade that can divide the very marrow of men.”

Yet another of these little anecdotes from childhood involved the Mongol Horde, with their fierce, mounted archers.  They wore only armor of padded leather, sometimes with bits of metal sewn to these tunics. When you think about the force with which their horse bows propelled arrows, this would seem insufficient protection, especially in an era without the benefits of modern triage or antibiotics.  But the purpose of this armor was not necessarily to repel an arrow–even one fired from a Chinese crossbow.  Instead, it was meant–if the shaft found its way past the metal discs–to rob it of momentum. For, beneath the leather and padding,  a silk shirt was worn.  If the arrow was slowed enough, the metal arrowhead was snared in the fibers.  Rather than breaking the silk, the fabric of natural threads wrapped around the arrowhead, allowing for an easy extraction after the battle had passed.


Loss of Language and the Value of Rich Description

I suppose you’re wondering why I just talked about ancient warriors and the properties of offensive and defensive materials.  Well, in my estimation, a varied and decadent vocabulary is a weapon–against vagueness and loss of the ability to think about detailed concepts.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m a word nerd.  Hence, my love of language is always going to verge on mania.  But such interest isn’t necessary to cultivate a broad, richly evocative vocabulary, nor should we eschew such a task as being unnecessary in our everyday interactions.  It’s crucial to the survival of our ability to envision intricate situations and objects–a tendency that was likely involved in the initial development of complex verbal communication of our earliest human ancestors.

One of the basic tenets of linguistic complexity is that, the fewer the speakers of a language, the more complex it is. As human groups ceased to be isolated, languages became increasingly simple, with shared grammars, a more easily translated vocabulary, and fewer sounds unique to a specific language.  Today, we see something of a similar process with our “global community.” Words are borrowed, shortened, merged with other words that may or may not be from the same language.  This is, in short, a natural and inevitable consequence of the fact that our species is rapidly growing, and personal cultural elbow room is limited.

However, the fact that we may choose to use simpler, shorter words–while it isn’t necessarily a wholly bad thing–isn’t doing us any favors as an intellectual species.  Vivid language, which is often relegated to a more antique generation, is also often more descriptive.  Moreover, a single word may stand in for an entire phrase of simplistic words.  I find that, as a writer, encountering those who may not have an expansive vocabulary is sometimes a tiresome exercise.  Their language plods across the page, tugging like a jagged fish hook at my memory.  Long before I made the choice to be either an anthropologist or a writer in the formal sense, I read a little book called 1984.


In Order to Write Well, Think Well–and Vice Versa

Now, I’m not going to review the themes of government overreach or life in a surveillance state.  No, instead, I would like to draw your attention to the New Speak Dictionary. In the first half of the book, this series of volumes is referenced, and essentially entails an ever-diminishing list of sanctioned or appropriate language.  “Better” and “best” are not in the approved vocabulary, rather, Plus-good and Double-plus-good are used.  Why is this important and how is it connected to what I’ve been talking about? When you limit–either through state action or through the natural consequence of linguistic simplification–the number of commonly used words in a culture’s lexicon, you limit their ability to think in deep or descriptive ways.  This is one way to kill both curiosity and creativity in the vast majority of a population.

Because, let’s face it, while there’s nothing wrong with being of average intelligence–and most people fall within one standard deviation of a median IQ of 100–this is the group that is most easily led, shaped, manipulated, and controlled.  When most of the population has lost the ability to think clearly, deeply, or follow a logical train of thought in regard to the consequences of any action, we’re in trouble.  (See, Idiocracy, 2006) Why, aren’t I getting a little ahead of myself, you may wonder.  No. If we cannot imagine what might result from a particular foreign policy, scientific development, or economic trend, we are at the mercy of those who can.

If you’re wondering what such a capacity has to do with a varied vocabulary, look up about eight lines. That’s why words like pellucid, bellicose, intransigent, and concupiscent are still necessary–not to mention the thousands of others that I have to dig for if I want to see them in a sentence that isn’t part their definition.  While I’m all for writing clean, simply stated phrases, I consider an abundant and voluptuous lexicon as vital as Mongol silk or a razor-sharp sword.  Examine your own vocabulary.  It’s not something for which there’s an app. You can’t “train your brain.” That’s geared towards a sort of rats-in-a-maze skill set. Language acquisition works along different lines. Humans (and species capable of symbolic communication, like parrots and the Great Apes) pick up language best in context–which, for us, means reading, as broadly and deeply as possible.  But don’t take my word for it…






6 thoughts on “Tongues of Iron and Silk: Why We Should Cultivate a Rich Vocabulary

  1. This is an excellently written piece that makes good on the connection between the ability to engage in broad thought and the capacity for language of depth. Sometimes people look askance when you practice this in public. But hey, if they open a dictionary later in the day because of our conversation, that is double-plus-good, yes? 😉

    And, it was fun to read to boot! Keep on keepin’ on lady.

    1. Thanks, dear! It was a bit of a vent, but I’m glad I wasn’t too tangiental. It is important to keep using elevated language–so long as it remains useful. (Trust me, some words are best left where they fell. They no longer have a place in this culture.)

  2. From war, attack and defense ton the bias and standardization of language…
    the anecdotes concerning the first topic are eloquent… I much agree with the statement.
    “It is not always to the powerful that comes the victory”.
    Taking it further, I would say that nowadays the most dominant languages are not the most complex ones, but probably the language which reaches more people… i.e not latin nor German… but English…
    Your thoughts concerning languages among our “global community.” and how the former affects words are probably a signal which shows us that hegemony might be most times symbolic and so are its expressions…
    Excelelnt post, dear Erin… congrats… Love and all the best to you. Aquileana 🎇 ~

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