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Trite talk leaves no historical trail

Jack Van Ens

Ever feel at a loss for a word? Occasionally, we hesitate, leaving blanks in previously smooth-flowing conversation. Then a word sticks to the back of your throat. You’re unsuccessful forcing it to the tip of your tongue.

Plagued by these verbal hesitancies, we use filler words. It’s lingo, the meaning of which doesn’t last, disappearing as does a puff of smoke.

When the right words escape them, many talkers interject “like” into their chattering. Repeated ad nauseam, this word gains likability in conversations. It saves us from embarrassing verbal pauses.

Scott R. Trepel, who heads Siegel Postage Stamp Auctions in Manhattan, describes a conversation overheard between two students hooked on using “like.” It littered their language, like trash strewn on a highway. “The word ‘like’, Trepel laments, “has spread through young American vernacular — now here it comes properly used — like venereal disease through a bordello.”

“The word ‘like’,” Trepel laments, “has spread through young American vernacular — now here it comes properly used — like venereal disease through a bordello.”

Listen to the “like-speak” of these West Coast collegians: “Literally, I was like, are you kidding? The super-shuttle only comes around campus like, every 45 minutes? He was like ‘yeah’ and like totally rude about it. And I was like, ‘I have class in 30 minutes’ and am going to be like, super late. And like, he didn’t even care!” (The Siegel Dispatch, Spring 2015, p. 2).

Repeatedly using the filler-word “like” infects our talking like a cancer and robs stamp collecting of its vitality. We seldom write letters weighted with memorable expression.

Philatelists collect stampless covers of 18th century and 19th century envelopes with sometimes-rare stamps affixed. Such covers often include letters.

In the past, corresponding was an art. Writers graced missives with elegant cursive handwriting and filled letters with quotable turns of phrases. They wrote for the ages and were aware of future generations peering over their shoulders, eager to read about a writer’s triumphs and travails.

Thomas Jefferson polished exquisite prose by reading in bed before retiring. He read ancient Greek and Roman poetry and the biblical Gospels in their original Greek. At dinner, Jefferson spun stories. Guests benefited from his expansive vocabulary, enticing wit and ability to make words dance on the page and in speech.

Sometimes skeptical of Jefferson, John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary in 1804 how Jefferson captured attention by spinning stories. “Mr. Jefferson tells large stories and you never can be an hour in this man’s company without something of the marvelous, like these stories.” Adams said he was turned-off, however, when Jefferson went on-and-on about what quality he liked in fine French wines.

Stamp auctioneer Trepel worries what literary collections will yield in years ahead, with fewer people writing notes and more “likes” in our speech. That’s because, laments Trepel, our minds are blitzed with sound bites, “the rapid-response, pithy writing styles inspired by email (the new Old School of communication), texts, Facebook posts, Instagram and Tweets.” Verbally “winging it” has replaced substantive writing and informed speaking that Jefferson modeled.

Today’s writing is often chatty, casual and cursory — correspondence that doesn’t produce a supply of stamps on envelopes worth mounting in albums. Our culture declines, too, when language lacks precision and settles for simplistic “likes.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to speak concisely and use simple words that suggest what’s sublime. He instructed followers to “say simply ‘Yes,’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37). Today, some of us blurt, like “yeah” or “nah.”

Winston Churchill didn’t appreciate glib political hacks who gave likable stump speeches that lacked weight. England’s war-time Prime Minister scorned an adversary who “spoke without a note and almost made a point.”

“Clutter is the disease of American writing,” warned William Zinsser, who instructed authors through his classic manual, “On Writing Well (1976).” Clutter burdens writers who use fat words with thin meanings, sound verbose and jam sentences with filler-words like “like” in order to keep up with the Kardashians.

“… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” Zinsser wrote. “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.”

There’s much at stake here. Historians and stamp collectors will lose future source material if Instagram instantly conveys words light as popcorn. Tweets pass on what’s trivial. We delete mundane emails.

What’s left for historians and philatelists to collect when crafted letters disappear? What remains in speech and writing to cherish, memorize and infuse with grandeur in our hearts, minds and spirits?

The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www:thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make history come alive.


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