In days of yore, say back as far as the 1960s, there were massive tomes called dictionaries. Though it was known that the average person might have a vocabulary of some four thousand words or less, even “simplified” dictionaries would have as many as 65,000 to 75,000 words — so at least 60,000 too many for even the most talkative people. Those compiled by ancient, outdated educational institutions like Oxford and Cambridge Universities dating back to medieval times might include double that number in their more than comprehensive, overgrown volumes that contained the origin of the word, umpteen different meanings and senses, and examples of how these nuanced usages might be utilized in sentences by show-offs.
The language built up steadily, out of hand for over two thousand years, expanding to something with virtually infinite turns and twists. It came to be admired by so-called brainy people throughout the world just for its exquisitely descriptive value, unparalleled logical definition and finnicky grammar that qualified shades of meaning. All this was appreciated by just a few thousand elite around the world out of seven billion. If it had been confined to just one person’s head, like the maths in Archimedes’ this surplus knowledge could have been easily nipped in the bud as his was by his timely assassination by that Roman stud, cut and buff in his form-fitting battle dress making him look so hot.
But those dudes with their jive-ass — sorry — runaway egos painstakingly designed what they grandly called works of art based on this language, using imaginary imagery and tricky devices conjuring poetic beauty from a blank page — that went over the heads of everyone but a few of their own. When everyone knows that a work of art is something you can see in front of you like an awesome multicolored tattoo, mass produced so tried and true, with heaps of symbolic meaning, by a proper tattoo artist, or a nice mosaic coffee table with pretty colors, or hear, like a vocal on American Idol that can spread one syllable across eight notes. It all snowballed and got “stink”, to use a well chosen descriptive catchall in common New Zealand usage. So I say — All the more credit to recent generations who have simplified the language and made it accessible to a great many more people who are now able to be admired for their fluent speech, even their gift of the gab.
Those best at the art of simplification have invented an abbreviated written language too for text messaging, now coming into more general use and far more concise than the spoken word — an outmoded form of communication just begging to be clipped down to manageability. Soon we will all be speaking in grunts and moans, sighs and snorts, hand gesticulations and facial contortions that served our primate forebears so very well. Human communication is said to be 93% nonverbal anyway, so why not take this important lesson from our ancestors?
The biggest corporates, teachers and other cultural leaders are not doing too badly though. If we look at just one part of speech, the descriptive adjective, the necessary vocabulary for anyone speaking English can be boiled down to three words: “awesome”, “not okay” and “inappropriate”. The word awesome is not the awesome that used to be, that is, inspiring awe — a word that has no useful meaning whatever — but more like the “fab” or “groovy” of yesteryear. It is therefore an ideally leveling word that exalts all achievements and accidents of birth alike. Where we might say a man who has developed the ability to smoke a cigarette with his lips and drink an alcoholic beverage through his nose on the same breath is truly awesome, we could also courteously apply the term — though we don’t really mean it — to a steady, admittedly boring researcher with nerdy hornrim glasses (actually a geek to be honest), progressing by inches towards a cancer cure, in order to make him feel good about himself for a moment and caringly bolster his self-esteem with a white lie.
Inappropriate is hardly at all like the inappropriate of before, meaning unsuitable. Inveterate diners used to say, “It is inappropriate to drink red wine with fish, and white wine with red meat.” But to dance a rhumba to a chacha rhythm is no longer inappropriate but creative, original and maybe freaky to those with an extraordinary vocabulary expanded to take in impressive technical jargon according to their specialization on tv shows, cooking, music or dancing. Today inappropriate should be applied only in those situations where a cover-all adjective is needed for “anything I don’t like.” In this way “inappropriate” is a useful conversation stopper and final judgment that precludes all debate on or enquiry about a particular subject that is probably unnecessary in the first place, maybe involving abstract concepts which don’t even exist anymore in everyday life; only in the minds of over-intellectualized dweebs.
“Not okay” is perhaps the most versatile compound adjective, handy for almost every occasion. A bereaved family member interviewed this week about the searing effects on the loved ones of his 15-year-old nephew being punched and kicked to death by two rugby team mates at practice was able to summon up composure enough in his grief at the funeral to say straight from the heart, “Violence is not okay.” The same well-spoken, obviously well-educated Kiwi, probably in a high-flying occupation, in a different circumstance might rightly apply this adjective to a gauchely misapplied dessert sauce on a television cooking show, thoughtlessly dolloped on the plate instead of tastefully and aesthetically drizzled.