Monday, March 10, 2014
A man in a body bag lying on a gurney at the funeral home awaiting embalming suddenly starts kicking. Declared dead, here he was alive. A miracle? Perhaps. A couple walking in the foothills of the Sierra Madres stumble across rusted cans filled with old gold coins worth millions. A miracle? Probably not, but lucky none the less. A soccer team beats an opponent that on paper was far superior. A miracle? Absolutely not. The use of the word miracle illustrates how loosely we use language without regard to actual context. We call anything unexpected and unusual a miracle. It diminishes the value of the word and its real impact in our conversations. We banter around the term to describe things as insignificant as getting good grades, “It’s a miracle she passed Trigonometry,” getting somewhere on time, “It’s a miracle we didn’t hit any red lights,” or avoiding discomfort, “It’s a miracle he didn’t throw up after eating all his Halloween candy.”
As a writer and English teacher, I am constantly encouraging students to be precise in their language. We accept laziness in composition — just look at any text or Twitter — and we settle for the use of vulgar four letter words as our adjectives of choice. This results in communication, which not only doesn’t elevate the conversation, but actually obscures it. We use emoticons to relay our meaning rather than expressing the meaning in a way it can be universally understood. When my students tackle a writing project and have to operate without the safety net of “lol” or smiley faces, they often flounder in the task. The nuances of satire, the delicacy of emotion, and the power of argument fall outside their abilities. Without the proper vocabulary to express themselves and the inability to depend on some type of external composition crutch, they completely freeze up.
One might assume a thesaurus would help, but it can actually inhibit good communication because students choose word options that are totally inappropriate to the context simply because they perceive the option as intellectual without regard to its meaning. In one episode of “Friends,” Joey has to compose a letter to support Monica and Chandler’s adoption application. His coarse product prompts Ross to suggest he use a thesaurus to create a more sophisticated response. The ensuing letter reads like a ridiculous parody. The sentence, “They are warm, nice people with big hearts” became “They are human prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.” He even signs the letter “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani.” In the struggle to sound wise, he, like many of my students, ended up sounding foolish. Ironically, to find a perfect synonym requires that the writer fully understand the meanings of the synonyms available to use.
I rely on a great text to help me find the perfect word for any situation. It was compiled by an attorney, who became exasperated by the number of cases he witnessed being overturned because of imprecise language in the jury instructions or in the decisions. Called “The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words,” it goes beyond the expected synonyms to discover related words based on use rather than just meaning. Every alternate has a clear explanation of its definition and use. For instance, “word” has 27 distinctly different usages. Author Peter Meltzer provides detailed examples of each usage, helping a writer select the best synonym for the job. Eponym (a word derived from a real or fictional person) has a very different utility than common synonyms for “word,” such as “term” or “expression.” The sentence, “Marat Sade provided us with the eponym for ‘sadism,’” more clearly defines meaning than simply saying he provided us with the term “sadism.” The latter could be interpreted as saying he made up the word, rather than he was the model for the word which is what eponym means.
Clearly, I am a strong advocate for using words that most accurately state what we mean. Which brings me to the word, “miracle.” I’m not a religious person, but I was raised in a strict religious home, and I have many relatives and friends of all faiths who participate regularly in religious services, studies and lifestyle. I’m well aware of how loosely we as a society have come to banter around the word “miracle,” without regard to its significance in the lives of people of faith. Most of us who speak of miracles aren’t talking about some powerful, meaningful and unexpected gift from God that cannot be comprehended through reason alone. Instead we are talking about some experience that benefitted us in a surprising way. But the actual event can be logically explained.
When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Russian team, it was declared “The Miracle on Ice.” The Disney movie about the event was titled simply and provocatively, “Miracle.” This past month, all the pundits were asking, “Can the U.S. repeat the miracle on ice?” The clamoring about miracles makes good press and certainly hypes the event to increase viewership (and it follows – revenue), but it belittles the actual meaning of miracle. We can say it was astonishing or unpredictable, but we know any “miracle” in the sports world is fully explainable. The team trained well, the opponent stumbled, external elements played to the team’s strengths, or, like it happens in soccer, the fluke shot scores. It’s amazing when we make all the green lights, but not miraculous. It’s wonderful when it doesn’t rain during the company picnic, but that’s not a miracle. The difficulty is that “Astonishing!” isn’t as strong a headline as “Miracle!” “Lucky” isn’t as emotional a word as “miracle.” We have gotten used to the hyperbole of the word without regard to its specific spiritual intent. The more we use the word indiscriminately the more we demean its power.
I don’t have a strong investment in whether or not miracle is used correctly, but through the years I have been well aware of how sloppily we use certain language that should have specific meaning. Recently, I heard a panel discussion on a girl who had been declared brain dead after routine surgery. Her family, unable to accept the diagnosis, have chosen to sustain her in a hospice on life support with the belief that God would provide a miracle and resurrect her. All but one member of the panel argued that there would be no miracles because someone clinically dead will remain dead even if her organs are kept working with machines. The lone dissenting member argued that miracle is defined by an unexplainable event like coming back from the dead. A miracle is an act that exists outside of reason and science. Whether or not you believe in its possibility isn’t the point. Nevertheless, the panel ended up angrily mocking this man’s argument. When the discussion shifted to another topic, people constantly brought the dialog back to what constituted a miracle, inferring that if he was ridiculous enough to believe that a child could come back from the dead then he must believe other things like finding a penny on the ground or losing ten pounds without dieting are miracles, trivializing his point. This got me thinking about how we appropriate language to serve our purposes without considering how that usage affects others.
No matter what I feel, the random use of the word miracle will continue. We are too inured to the impact our use has. However, I still want people to recognize how careless we can be with our word choices. English has such a richness. In “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins says to Eliza Doolittle: “The majesty and grandeur of the English language — it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sound.” The way we use powerful, singular words like miracle in a broad spectrum of occasions and the way we have reduced our communication to emoticons and abbreviations are symptoms of how we have settled for a less majestic and grand language. When we accept less and less precision and splendor in our selections, we give ourselves over to misunderstanding and dullness. More significantly, we do our children a disservice. Even the SAT is accommodating our diminishing language immersion by forgoing the writing sample and making the vocabulary more “user-friendly” code for simplifying. More and more, I see schools ready to abandon writing and speech as considering them insignificant aspects of an educated life. We have gotten sloppy in our language because we aren’t challenged to be smart and accurate. Therefore, we are subjected to misspelled and grammatically incorrect scrawls on the news and the inability of people to articulate an argument. We foolish believe that if we can put words on a page, we are capable of writing, which is no truer than believing if we can walk we can win the 100-meter dash. We aren’t thoroughbred writers and speakers. Excellence requires years of development. If we spent as much time encouraging our children to become outstanding readers, speakers and writers as we spend encouraging them to develop a perfect first touch, we would prepare them to be exceptional citizens who not only clearly mean what they say but express themselves with power and creativity .