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Essay

If Words Matter

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Jennifer L. Holberg will be away from the blog for several weeks. Her replacement is T. Jefferson Underhill. Underhill, thinking about a career change, is a Professor of Humanities.

Someone should notice when a good word dies. I was reminded of this recently while reading a David Brooks’ column, “What Our Words Tell Us.”

Brooks focuses on the diminishment of words related to moral virtue: “courage, “honesty,” “patience,” “compassion,” “bravery,” “fortitude,” appreciation,” and “thankfulness.” He cited statistics to support his notion that the disappearance of such words indicates a shift we might want to note. I have my own list.

As recently as a generation ago, one could use the word “academic,” for example to describe a life dedicated to matters of the mind. Academics were often scholars or teachers with important matters to profess. They may have been the shabby gentility in terms of financial success and social power, but a certain measure of respect came with the word. Now that sense of the word has passed away. “Academic” has become a pejorative term synonymous with “irrelevant.” Academics live in ivory towers, get summers off, are notably deficient in common sense, and preoccupy themselves with the trivial, the minute, and the ridiculously insignificant.

If it is true that one need only follow the money to learn what others value or even venerate, then what does the current salary structure in the academy tell us? Football coaches top the scale, of course, and those who administrate do pretty well.

The ivory tower folks languish a bit, perhaps, but they are too pointy headed to worry about filthy lucre. Besides, folks are lining up to teach English Composition and Business 101 for minimum wage. Football coaches are harder to come by.

Or how about the phrase “liberal arts?” As “Know Thyself” has morphed into “Be Yourself,” fewer of us are really much interested in learning for transformation. Information, as long as it leads to remuneration, is enough. Other good words gone south: lecture, sermon, and speech. Each of these imply a certain amount of wisdom to be communicated to a wakeful and receptive audience, an audience interesting in good advice or maybe even truth. Today’s audiences, if they show at all, come armed with mobile devices. The sage on the stage is a minor distraction, and who really believes that any of us have intelligent counsel to offer? I have my opinion, and you have yours.

And there’s that old word “vocation.” “Job” takes up less space on Twitter. Vocation implies calling, an investment beyond the mere getting and spending. Recessions move “vocation” out of our discourse. Parents and school counselors have fixated on “marketable skills.” The meandering path toward genuine vocation is a remnant of flush times and idealism. Ooh, there’s another word that has been mothballed. Someone should notice.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • Beth Lantinga says:

    I'd like to add the word humility to Brook's list. It seems easy for us, academics and others, to fall into the declarative, pontificating mode, often without the knowledge or understanding to back up our assertions.

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