I’ve always been a people watcher. At most parties I go to, I end up being a wall flower. And with all the travelling I’ve done, I’ve had ample opportunity to watch people in airports. One of the most interesting things is watching people communicate. As a male, I’ve never really been able to interpret (or even recognize) most body langauge. But I am a keen observer of both tone of voice, and the words people use.
A lot of folks seem to overlook the importance of the actual words in any given conversation. Folks get so hung up on tone of voice, or body language, that they miss the point of what is being said. I try very hard to listen to what people say. The words people choose speak volumes as to what they are thinking, whether intentionally or not. See, words have a certain cultural context to them that we often take for granted.
As an example, compare the words murder and kill. Both words can be used more or less interchangeably. But if you say that you know someone who was murdered, the general reaction is much stronger - and more sympathetic - than if you announce that you know someone who’d been killed. Likewise, if you kill someone, you may or may not be morally responsible (depending on your ethical composition, no doubt). But if you murder someone, you are clearly to blame. Some of this can be attributed to the dictionary differences between these example words, but not all of it.
As another example, consider sex (or any of its slang replacements) and making love. Although most folks this day and age will agree that making love is a bit corny, it does convey a certain romance which sex does not. Making love has a cultural history of being a passionate, romantic engagement by two willing partners. But if you say that two people are screwing or doing it, it diminishes some of the passion - it becomes a furtive act, possibly clandestine, and very probably frowned upon. In a similar vein, examine affair and cheating. Again, both words mean the same. But history has made affair an almost forgivable thing - usually due to the romance of the two lovers. But cheating leaves no doubt as to the violation that is going on - at least one person is very clearly breaking an agreement with another person, whether that agreement be explicit or not.
But there is a lot more to language use than merely historical tradition. The power of vocabulary cannot possibly be over-stated. The more words you have to describe a thing, the more things you can describe. A rich vocabulary is the key to a rich world. Without a sufficiently broad vocabulary, one cannot accurately capture and relate the vast nuance of the world. As an example, I am presently in a bad mood. The reason for this mood is extremely complex, so it’s a little too simple to say I’m in a bad mood - I’m sullen, or melancholy. These words describe my mood far more aptly then just bad.
As I stated above, I listen to people a lot. I hear a lot of people destroy the English language on a regular basis (and I’m not just talking about people who want to ax you a question, want to know pacifically what you’re talking about, or claim that something is funner). If these people had more of a vocabulary, they could express themselves so much more succinctly. Instead, I overhear the word cool about ten thousand times a day. I hear people who cannot use a synonym for go, or okay. I hear people blurt out um every other word.
Language is just one part of communication. I wonder if the ways we communicate these days are affecting our use of language?