Fighting “The Death of Words”

As a college writing instructor, I have noticed a disturbing trend in my students’ ability to choose and use words appropriately.  These same students also appear increasingly unable to comprehend critical vocabulary used in non-fiction writing. The unfortunate result of these challenges is an inability to contribute to class discussions on important ideas and the inevitable struggle with articulating a coherent response in writing. Students who cannot process ideas in a text and respond with their own clear thoughts risk losing a place in the discourse which shapes our world.

This isn’t a new problem.  In 1944, C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “The Death of Words” in which he explains the danger of losing word meaning.  He discusses the word “Christian” in particular, suggesting that in his time it had become synonymous with “good.” In a postmodern culture set against the truth claims of Christianity and prone to redefining key terms, we might want to take note of Lewis’s warning.  Hear Lewis’s caution:

…when, however reverently you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long    continue to think what they have forgotten how to say. (Lewis, 1944, p. 9)

Indeed, we do not.  My students are evidence of this.  As teachers of language and heralds of truth, we must recognize this problem and employ whatever means possible to fight against it.  Classical educators already possess an arsenal of tools for teaching students the meaning of words, but new strategies are also needed.  Consider the following:

  1. Expose students to important historical texts and classic literature. Allow students to be exposed to vocabulary beyond their reach, and take time to define important words.  A steady stream of good, articulate writing provides students with a backdrop for growth in their own reading and writing skills.
  2. Defend the teaching of Grammar and Latin. Students gain a great understanding of how language works through learning these skills. Grammar helps students learn how words work, and Latin helps them decipher the meaning of countless words in the English language.
  3. Teach important vocabulary as soon as possible. Expose students to new words early on—their capacity for remembering is greater than we realize! Consider using a book of suggested vocabulary such as The Must Words: The 6000 Most Important Words for a Successful and Profitable Vocabulary.  Teach students a few new words a week, or look for other creative strategies to incorporate them into classroom activities.
  4. Model attentiveness to word choice. No instructor is exempt from the need to take care with his or her language use!  Even teachers and parents do well to continually expose themselves to good writing and new vocabulary.  Students will see our own desire to use words appropriately and, hopefully, follow suit.

In his essay on dying words, Lewis writes: “To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language” (Lewis, 1944, p. 9).  I concur; as teachers and parents—and especially as Christians—we must do all we can to help our children learn the meaning of words and the ability to wield them well.

 

Reference

Lewis, C.S. (1944). The death of words. The Spectator Archives (22 Sept 1944), p. 9. Retrieved from http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/22nd-september-1944/9/the-death-of-words.

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