In 1981, I bought a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Ambitious to be a journalist and writer, it seemed a necessary tool with which to prepare for such a trade. Reading The Guardian each morning, it seemed liberally sprinkled with words I had never previously encountered, journalists seemed to possess vast vocabularies. The ambition to write was never fulfilled, but the copy survives. Just as there are people who are said to read dictionaries, I used to read through the pages of Roget, trying to learn better and more interesting ways of saying things, trying to find words that said the things I thought. It didn’t really work, even now, I read newspaper articles and think, “I wish I had been able to say that”, particularly when the piece is describing nature or art, or anything of beauty.
I have enough words to get by, though, enough words to say the stuff that needs to be said, enough words to do what needs to be done, and I know what words not to use, words like “miasma” and “predicated” and “hubris”, and similar others, which I have heard used in harvest sermons to country congregations. A colleague I once invited to a service some years ago, a colleague accustomed to preaching to a post-graduate and professional congregation, said that as he read his sermon, the inappropriate words were leaping off the page at him and he was trying to rewrite his sermon as he preached it.
The worrying trend is that the number of words needed to get by is shrinking. We seem to be moving into a post-literate society. Perhaps smartphones and online communication have eliminated the need to be able to write words in the way that people wrote in the past, but what is also being lost is the capacity to speak words. No longer reading or writing, people are losing the words with which they would once have sustained interesting conversations, words with which they might have articulated deeply felt thoughts and emotions, words with which they could have participated in meetings or gatherings, words which might have changed relationships, families, communities.
Trying to teach a school class, the word “pilgrimage” appeared in the textbook. The writers of the book obviously regarded it as a word without need of explanation, for there was no explanation of what they meant when they said that people had made a pilgrimage to someone’s grave. “What does pilgrimage mean?” I asked. None of the eleven and twelve year olds in the room offered an answer.
“Pilgrimage” is not even a necessarily religious word, Gaelic sports fans might make a pilgrimage to Croke Park, rugby fans to Lansdowne Road, but if religious words that were once part of everyday usage are now unknown to a younger generation, then who is there who understands more than a fraction of the words spoken by the church? It is almost as though we need a reverse Roget process, a simplification of all that we say. Don’t “commence” when you can “begin”, and don’t “begin” when you can “start”, and if there is a word simpler than “start”, then use it.