As a writer who has made it a professional priority to be personally accessible to my readership (“Take Daedalus Howell out to lunch” contact information below), it’s not uncommon for me to be approached by readers who are interested in jumping the transom to become writers themselves. Of course, I understand the appeal – the writer’s life brims with riches and carnal delights on par with most minor deities, not to mention the option for immortality and free wine. I have often paused to ask myself while on assignment traipsing through the Garden of Earthly Delights, “How is it that I’ve found myself in this ever-growing heap of pure, wanton ecstasy?” To which I invariably reply, “Oh, that’s right, I’m a writer. Tee-hee.”
Though I’m happy to share my insights on the gig with aspiring writers, I feel I also have the responsibility to educate them about a subject seldom discussed outside of literary circles: the word shortage.
The world’s word shortage has been approaching crisis levels for decades but reached dangerous new heights with the recent proliferation of blogs, text messaging and the sudden surge in fan letters sent to the Sun. Though advances in visual media like on-demand television and videogames have helped stymie literacy, a major contributor to word usage, the shortage continues unabated. Even our government’s attempts to curtail word use (by jailing journalists, for example) have proven only palliative measures.
We must remember that, despite the fact that we have hundreds of languages on Earth, their collective vocabularies only add up to a few million words. When one considers the amount of words trafficked in a week’s worth of e-mails alone, the enormity of the crisis becomes clear. Moreover, the price of words keeps rising: a formerly 50-cent word such as “meretricious” now goes for about a buck and a half and medium-grade words like “adamantine,” once a dime a dozen, now find writers between a rock and a hard place.
Those of us who work with words are keenly aware of our responsibility to preserve this precious resource. Writers have long been encouraged to use brevity and economy when turning a phase, or as the mantra more or less goes: Less is more. To wit, in my own writing, I often employ more word-efficient polysyllabic terms where, say, a couple of smaller words would do. Some call this “stylistic pretension” but I call it “undertaking to accomplish the right thing.”
In Nineteenth Century Japan, an epidemic of epic poetry strained the nation’s word count. Poet and language conservationist Masaoka Shiki alleviated the burden by creating a more practical poetic form – the comparatively zippy haiku. A similar movement was launched early in the past century when the great poet Hallmark rendered his written works down to bite-sized aphorisms that we know today as “greeting cards.”
In America, people assume that our First Amendment right to freedom of speech guarantees us eternal withdrawals from the word bank. Not so – as it turns out freedom of speech is apparently only guaranteed in English: shopping elsewhere in the supermarket of world tongues is prohibido. At first glance censorship may appear to be an effective means of word conservation, but it actually has the reverse effect. No matter how much language is spent redressing the issue, no matter how many words are siphoned from the reserves, I can guarantee you that those who censor never have the last word.