In the 1989 science-fiction movie, The Abyss, an American nuclear submarine has suffered fatal hull damage when attempting to navigate through an exceptionally deep chasm. The captain of the sub, and his executive officer, have both just fully comprehended that, in spite of their frantic efforts to save it, the sub—and all its crew—are doomed. He states the inescapable: “We’re losing her.”
Why that scene, that terse comment heard in a movie so long ago, has so deeply implanted itself in my memory lies, I believe, in the power of the words. No more dramatic comprehension and acceptance of your own doom could have been expressed in so few words. “We’re losing her,” says everything that could possibly be said, at that moment.
And that, I think, is what is so disturbing to me about the use of our language in so much of what I see being published, or in social media. I reflect on the heritage of our language, the gifts that have come to us over the centuries, and I can only wonder…are we “losing her?”
Our traditional English language, the words handed down to us through everything from ancient literature to common, everyday communication, is arguably one of the most profound gifts that has ever been offered to our society, our culture.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” we’re told. Evidence of the acceptance of that claim are the millions, perhaps billions, of pictures taken daily on cell phones around the globe. But is that always true? Sometimes, there is no picture that entirely suffices; only words will convey what is intended. For example, there is the opening line from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”
Just seven words. Yet, anyone who has ever been there, stood in the snow, deep in a woods, on a quiet, cold, winter’s evening as dusk deepens the scene, knows in great detail and depth exactly what was being described, being felt, in those words. No painting, no megapixel cell phone photo, could convey that same fabric of emotions and sensations, as does that simple phrase.
Similarly, when Goering’s vaunted German Luftwaffe had been unable to destroy and defeat the beleaguered Royal Air Force in the 1940 Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid tribute to the handful of British and Allied pilots who had fought those battles,
“Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.”
I’ve watched movies about that conflict, read the books. But none of those so concisely, yet profoundly, described those few embattled months for survival. Words, just those few words, say it all.
Facebook, and other social media, present us daily with incredible photos of the wonders of nature. Yet, none of those pictures, whether of the Grand Canyon or the vastly enlarged, minutely detailed photo of the blossom of a flower, stir my emotions as do the lines from the ancient Psalms,
“When I look at Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon, and the stars
which Thou hast established, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”
I am an engineer—and a pilot—by birth, apparently. Thus, my writing has long tended toward straight-forward presentation of the facts, reflecting my engineer’s mind set. But God also seeded within me a deep desire to be a writer, and I have long attempted to divorce my writing from my engineering propensities. The difficulty of doing so was evident whenever I attempted to describe the emotions I feel that result from some of my flying experiences.
There were flights where I flew over mountainous areas, on bright, sunny days, the sky filled with scattered cumulous clouds. The scenery was breathtaking, the flight memorable. But a young British Spitfire pilot took such a flight, one morning, and composed a sonnet in his mind, as he descended to land. Its first, and last, lines were,
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds . . .
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Composed by John Magee, “High Flight” became a “gold standard” for the emotions we pilots feel on some of our more spectacular flights. Words, just words.
In my mind, the beauty of High Flight lies not so much in the sentiments expressed—most pilots will have similar flights, similar feelings, at some point in their lives—it lies in the beauty of the English language.
And that, I think, is what is so distressing to me about so much of what I now see being published, in print or in social media, about the use of our language, the words I read. I cringe at the misused form of words, “there,” when “their” is meant, “your,” for “you’re.” Profanity-laced throughout, words that would have sent us to the woodshed when I was a kid are now common-place. Misspelled words, carelessly—or being less gracious, lazily—ignored, seem to bother no one. Simplistic writing, grammar once subjected to a bright red line slashed across it when submitted in a high school theme, is praised.
Lamentations, in the Bible, is a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem. And this, I suppose, is my lamentation over what I perceive is the loss of so much of the beauty, the elegance and sophistication, that is, or at least has been, so much a part of our English language. English, our native language, can be crude and simplistic. But it can also shine with beauty, ring with eloquence.
Throughout all my years, as I read everything from the Psalms to Steinbeck, I marveled at the beauty embedded in our language. To be able to write like that, it seemed, was truly of gift from God. Whether it was Of Mice and Men, or Tale of Two Cities, all I could think as I read was, Please, God, let me learn how to write like that.
Now, does that mean that I believe that writing can be good only if fancy, multisyllabic words, flowery phrases, are used? Of course not. Read an abstract of anything published by a university professor, if you don’t believe me. A ten-cent idea wrapped in ten-dollar words is still a ten-cent idea. Ernest Hemmingway, known for his terse writing style, once reacted to criticism of his writing by a then-famous writer with, “Poor Faulkner; he thinks big ideas can only come from big words.”
Many of our most memorable gifts of language, passed down to us over our history, came to us in plain, simple language. For example, there are these:
“When in the course of human events…”
“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent…”
“To be…or not to be. That, is the question.”
They, and the many equal to them, are gifts to us, the gift of language, of words. Now, whether I read comments on social media or columns written by well-known “professionals,” I reflect on the heritage of our language, the gifts that have come to us over the centuries, and all I can think is, “We’re losing her.”