In 1988, Nobel Prize winning poet and Russian dissident Joseph Brodsky, delivered a sobering and pragmatic commencement address at the University of Michigan. "Be kind to your parents, be gracious toward politicians, shun the limelight - don't try to stand out, avoid conferring upon yourself the status of 'victim', don't give credence to those who would make life miserable for you" and other utterly banal (but terrestrial) bits of wisdom.
That same year, in another part of the world and in dire need of sobering, I sat in my graduation cap and gown at my high school's commencement exercise in eager anticipation of the beckoning world before me. If Brodksy were speaking at my beloved BRHS that year instead of U of M, I would hope the effect of his booming aura -his sharp admonitions imbued in practical wit- would have had a bewitching charm, one of the greatest living writers reciting an incantation over me and my compadres, handing us the secret keys to unlocking the doors of all of life's opportunities.
Unfortunately, a spell is what would have been required.
Earthy and sagacious, Brodsky, despite his heretical pedigree, would have had the unsatisfying privilege of trying to convert, not merely the ridiculously bored, but also as seditious a group of high schoolers as a man could face, young men whose minds were already beginning to decay inside their recalcitrant skulls.
I wish I could say I would have been one of the few enraptured by this eminent scholar, on the contrary, I would have been fatigued. I can see the shudder of boredom shivering through me as I hear his first admonition: "Now, and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earning."
I observe the eighteen-year-old-me sitting there: eyes rolling -freewheeling- into the back of my skull. Freedom beckons, Brodsky! The annals of history are waiting to be written! The shores of the conquered are within our grasp and you are speaking to us about ... vocabulary?! One more lecture, I mutter to myself, and I am out of here.
Brodsky drones on:
The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success -although, those too, can be consequences- nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one's psyche; the mode of one's expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn't go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn't turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis - and on and off, books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass cost far less than a single visit to the psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.
Build my vocabulary? Who the hell is this Brodsky? Doesn't he realize we're dropping this education business once-and-for-all? Perhaps he needs to review his sacred dictionary and brush up on the word 'educated', past tense, e-d-u-c-a-t-e-d.
I watch that arrogant youth, not knowing yet what he does not know, and I hear him sneer, "We're all done here Joe, thanks. Hit the lights on the way out."
In the intervening years, that same headstrong youth will have spent his lifetime using the primary toolset bequeathed to him by his bygone alma mater: words. Those clumsy building blocks, the letters of which comprise a veritable periodic table of elements for anyone who speaks the English language (which amounts to over 375 million as a first language and upwards of a billion as a second language).
Words to convince, convert, defend, assuage, admonish, and harangue. Words to hire, sell, defend, improve, and produce. Letter by letter, sentence by sentence, bit by bit, line by line. Words in public. Words in private. Words in emails. Words in water cooler conversation. Words in boardrooms. Words in conference calls. Words in meetings. Words on airplanes. Words in brochures. Words on websites. Words in social media. Words at networking events. (The vast majority used as expression in the form of written communication).
Words. Words. Words.
Eleanor Catton, celebrated author, winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, wrote an op-ed piece on literature and elitism, or rather, elitism versus populism as it relates to word choice by authors. I was astonished that this topic is a concern in literary circles but to discover that this particular protest was waged by someone against The Paris Review (a delectable irony) is even more astounding. The plaintiff lodged their protest via twitter (the court of public opinion) disapproving of an author's use of the word 'crepuscular', claiming it self-indulgent and elitist. (I chuckled aloud because I had used this word recently as well). Catton clarifies an important distinction, "Clearly the definition needs to be refined, and a distinction drawn between “elitism” and “elite” — for there is a significant difference between being the best, and insisting on a definition of the best: it is the difference between being a good artist and being a good critic, or between being a good writer and being a good reader."
In business -the world in which I live- the hubris of word choice is a not a problem, but it should be, for we are no less passionate than the literary world in our pursuit of excellence and we both use the same tools of syntax to communicate ideas. There are (unfortunately) two extremes that issue from the lexicon of the business world.
Commerce, particularly corporate America, thrives on colloquialism-as-communication, an inveterate evil that flourishes in its ignorance as idiomatic phrases. Words like "synergy" and "empowerment" and "win-win" are at the core of enterprise vernacular, they act as a subset of the English language and are the primary currency in the exchange of ideas (albeit an anemic or bankrupt medium of exchange) and they thrive behind an obfuscating veil of neologism. I am (unfortunately) well-versed in the etymology of clichés as corporate-speak, they tumble fluently from my mind to my lips (or fingertips), an embarrassment that shames my literary sensibilities. When I grope madly for the right words and a cliché sounds from my lips, it sinks to the floor in a hollow, platitudinous thud.
Brodsky's comment to "pay every attention to it (vocabulary) and try and increase your earnings" is sapient counsel for anyone but it is crucial for those of us in business. We are constantly conveying ideas that are intended to move our prime initiatives forward, and to do so with a feebly wielded cliché is the surest way to neutralize (or at least decelerate the momentum of) progress.
Is this extreme? After all, we (I) resort to clichés predominantly because of the speed of business: we rarely devote sufficient time to our ideas so a cliché is simply the most convenient form of conveyance. But this is precisely Brodsky's point: we invest in our own personal lexicon so that we are not left with a limp and flaccid vocabulary to draw from when we need it the most. We are in the business of moving ourselves and others toward a particular goal and to do so with only the primary toolset given to us via our primary education is to diminish our effectiveness and to frustrate our efforts. We sacrifice exactitude for evasiveness, our ideas confounded by a state of verbal impotence. "Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion."
The other extreme is equally as bankrupt: there seems to be a culturally accepted lexicon for many in the business world, a maximum allowable threshold of word-choice for any conversation. It is a limited-word playing field with imaginary rules of conduct and order, one in which word choice favors the populist. If you exceed the acceptable boundaries you risk "trying to sound smart" (i.e., elitist) however, businesspeople do not use the word 'elitism', they simply consider the offender arrogant or pretentious. It is notable that though the business world looks dimly upon those that attempt to push the bounds of the average lexicon, enterprises still flourish (somehow) amid the tyranny of idiomatic wisdom (despite the fact that many despise clichés, orator and audience).
What vexes me: when does one know that they have reached culture's maximum allowable threshold of the english language? Who determines the glossary? Does populism demand hegemony and should anyone who stands in defiance do so at risk of seeming imperious? (Example: the fact that I used two words in the previous sentence that some might not know, does that entitle them to be pissed off?). I recently read a brilliant 2012 Vanity Fair article about President Obama that, due to the erudition of the author (Michael Lewis), I was forced to hunt in my dictionary on at least four occasions, foraging for the meaning of words such as "equipoise", "propinquity", and phrases like "Gordian knot" (a deftly deployed metaphor). Also, listening to the newly released audiobook version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I stumbled across words that are not even in my dictionary and those that were ("concatenation") compelled me to Websters, delaying any progress until I understood the word in its context. Are these excursions unnecessary distractions or are they vital employs in the transference of ideas?
Personally, I use new words deliberately so as to practice working knowledge (IRL) syntax but also because, having learned the correct usage, it becomes the perfect word, the only word for that occasion (or, at least the only word I call to mind that is appropriate). My personal vocabulary emerges from my library - from my history of read things. If I am reading Plutarch or Shakespeare or Jim Collins, these words are the most recent words that make a memory trace in my mind, (if I am lucky) leaving an indelible impression. I concede that there is a limit: if I am immersed in Finnegan's Wake and use the word 'rearrive' or the phrase 'commodius vicus' I might as well impale my aristocratic heart upon some plebeian scythe as there is no recovery from a James Joyce reference in business. Joseph Allston, the protagonist (and retired literary agent) in Wallace Stegner's The Spectator Bird defends his supposed linguistic prodigy as simply an attempt at a working knowledge, "When I learn a new word I don't hide it under a bushel".
In business (as in all endeavors) my word choice reflects the influence of those I am closest to and those whose books and thoughts I choose to immerse myself in. It is oddly hypocritical that the world of business, the world that abhors colloquialisms and board room phraseology also detests the (supposed) "know-it-all". By using words that push the bounds of conventional wisdom and common usage, many misunderstand it as elitism (or, an attempt at elitism). Though I don't feel myself a linguistic prodigy like Joseph Allston, I do refuse to comply to the tyranny of popular opinion; to do so is to risk my own edification but more importantly, to sacrifice precision for ambiguity. E. B. White, the renown writer who delivered the sacred tablets of grammatical stone down to us in his book The Elements of Style once warned us:
“Communication by the written word is a more subtler (and more beautiful thing) than Dr. Flesch and General Motors imagine. They contend that the “average reader” is capable of reading only what tests Easy, and that the writer should write at or below this level. This is a presumptuous and degrading idea. There is no average reader, and to reach down toward this mythical character is to deny that each of us is on the way up, is ascending. (“Ascending,” by the way, is a word Dr. Flesch advises writers to stay away from. Too unusual.) … It is my belief that no writer can improve his work until he discards the dulcet notion that the reader is feeble-minded, for writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. Ascent is at the heart of the matter … and a writer who questions the capacity of the person at the other end of the line is not a writer at all, merely a schemer. The movies long ago decided that a wider communication could be achieved by a deliberate descent to a lower level, and they walked proudly down until they reached the cellar. Now they are groping for the light switch, hoping to find the way out”. – E. B. White, Calculating Machine, Poems and Sketches
The very tone of this article I am writing and my own personal bias toward a richer experience of language risks judgement. Some might claim my predilection toward precise communication a supercilious arrogance. But I ask you to consider that young man in cap and gown, the one so eager for world domination, the one with his metaphoric fingers plugged in his ears: in a little over ten years, he will be forced to seek his riches in a world dominated by the written word (email). Fortunately, for him, this was a welcome relief for he will turn out to be a better communicator by the written word than by his mouth (or, so his future self thinks). But, many I have known through the years developed a skill set for only verbal communication and even that a rudimentary form (at best). Worse, beyond formal schooling, they rarely invested more time into the pursuit of mastery over their most esteemed asset: communication, or, the pursuit of a professional, working lexicon. Mr. Brodsky, that perspicacious sage, genius of letters, (whose second language was english) declared that the goal of autodidactic discipline is emotional and psychic edification, "to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance." Brodksy's point: personal, professional investment in yourself yields high self-esteem.
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow, the author discusses cultural relativism as it relates to "elitism". Joe Kramer, a welder in a South Chicago plant, is what Mihaly describes as an "autotelic personality" ("The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, 'auto' meaning self, and 'telos' meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward."). Joe is driven by his autotelic personality to create challenges both at home and work, sometimes inventing them for his own pleasure, volunteering his efforts where others consider the task too complex. After a long day at work, Joe retreats home to begin work on yet another challenge while other welders escape each evening to the local bars to (as Billy Joel croons) "forget about life for a while". Mihaly continues:
One might argue here that endorsing Joe’s life-style over that of his fellow workers is reprehensibly "elitist." After all, the guys in the saloon are having a good time, and who is to say that grubbing away in the backyard making rainbows is a better way to spend one’s time? By the tenets of cultural relativism the criticism would be justifiable, of course. But when one understands that enjoyment depends on increasing complexity, it is no longer possible to take such radical relativism seriously. The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings, as Joe did, is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter.
Where Joseph Brodsky, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and E. B. White agree is at this intersection of personal development for pleasure via the edification of self by a "high investment of psychic energy" (Csikszentmihalyi) and the refusal to comply with substandards for the sake of remedial comprehension and cultural relativity.
I am, no doubt, passionate about this topic because I have been reading and writing of the African American experience in the post Civil War south. Education was a matter of urgent primacy for illiterate blacks. Without it, they would be consigned to a lifetime of poverty and ignorance; they yearned for literacy. Frederick Douglas commented, "I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise". In her book Self-Taught, author Heather Andrea Williams wrote, "African Americans invested great faith in the ability of literacy to enable them to escape from slavery, and then to make freedom meaningful in the emancipation period." The struggles of valiant and earnest freedmen in no way compare to our challenges today but they do serve as an example: those who are willing to invest in themselves ameliorate the conditions that impede progress, creating a pathway to personal victory by refusing to let popular opinion enslave their potential.
Ultimately, the working lexicon of the individual is not about elitism versus populism, it is a struggle for clarity and lucidity amid a landscape that is littered with overwrought words and worn phraseology and for the individual who invests in themselves, it is a remunerative act yielding personal reward.
Brodsky claims it is quite simply about preserving your sanity.
Like science, religion, and philosophy - language is the foundational baseline from which we all move and express our being, it is the architecture with which we will use to enlarge our future and fulfill our dreams.
"Ascent," E. B. White concluded -not elitism- "is at the heart of the matter".