PASSION AND VERBICIDE II

By: Justin Shelby

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“But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; they become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative — useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

– C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words

“Fuck that, Justin,” you say. “I like the word ‘passion’ and I’m going to use it however I want. Isn’t language conventional? Screw etymology and history, usage ultimately determines meaning anyway, right? My usage! My choice!”
Fine. But there is another reason why I would encourage you to reserve “passion” for things that you’ve either suffered for or are certain that you would suffer for. Your actions may be more consequential than you realize: the very fate of the English language is in your hands. You must decide whether or not you want to commit verbicide. C.S. Lewis talks about this idea in Studies in Words, which is where I encountered it for the first time, but the term was apparently originated by Oliver Wendell Holmes in a book of his essays (available for free on kindle!). 

Verbicide is the murder of a perfectly good word by its misuse or overuse. If I remember correctly, Lewis uses is the word “gentleman” as an example. Originally, the word “gentleman” was used to refer to male members of the land-owning nobility, that is, members of a formal aristocracy. This made the word useful and distinct. For example, if I were to nod to a group of men and say “Look at that gentleman over there”, you would know that I was asking you to look at a certain kind of man, from a certain kind of family, with a certain kind of status, etc. Quite a lot of information in a single word. Over time, however, “gentleman” came to be a polite form of address that could be applied to any male, regardless of status. As soon as it took on this meaning, it became indistinguishable from the word “man” and the verbicide was achieved. The soul of the word had gone and only an empty husk remained, inhabited occasionally by other less distinct spirits. Take a look at the quote above. It describes the pattern of “gentleman” perfectly. Now “to be a gentleman”, simply means “be nice” or “be polite”, effectively a useless synonym for “good”. I believe the word “sir”, initially an honorific indicating meaningful rank and status and now roughly equivalent to “dude”, has a similar history and fate.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with using gentleman as a polite term for any man at all. It is not immoral or evil to kill words in the same way it would be to kill people. But it is hard to see how our languages or linguistic lives are made better by taking words with definite, unique meanings and making them synonymous with other words. It is possible to shrink the expressive power of a given language, and verbicide is one way to do it. Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language is a good place to start if you’d like to explore more along those lines.
Passion sits on the brink. Its casual, sloppy use to mean “interest” is killing it, and we have no other word that so neatly encapsulates the idea “interest or value that I am willing to suffer for.” So, I implore you (with tears running down my cheeks) do not hollow out “passion”. Help keep the English language strong with loaded words for complex ideas. Read the quote above, think about how colorful a word passion is, in the full-blooded way that I’ve talked about it here. You cannot but conclude that, when we use “passion” loosely, our urge to show ourselves as interesting, to allow others to evaluate us rather than understand us by the words we use, is interfering with our need to describe ourselves accurately. And so “passion” is diluted to “strong interest” and onward eventually to “thing I do”. Only you can prevent verbicide. Save passion for once you have suffered, and prevent the harrowing of the English language thereby. Forgive my many use-mention bungles.

“But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; they become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative — useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

– C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words



Justin Shelby