Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Poor Man's Riches

Some time ago I was listening to a BBC interview with the Australian poet Les Murray about the compilation of a distinctly Australian dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary. One of his casual remarks, one of several I would have liked to hear him expound, was that “words are the poor man’s riches.” That left it up to me to think it out for myself.

I considered where new words come from. A number come from writers for ad firms or politicians, those using language to sell goods, services, actions, or personalities to people not as linguistically nimble. (Cf. the Afghanistan war: the precision of technological weaponry vs. the dreaded roadside IED, the Improvised Explosive Devise or as the military don’t want to put it, “home-made bomb.”) But many more begin among those who are not a part of the mainstream of business, culture, government, or other such matters. A richness of words has always come from the poor.

The language is infiltrated, and usually enriched, by the acceptance of slang. I can remember when it was not proper to refer to children as young goats; now even the most refined parents will praise their “kids.” When I was young I used to laugh and sing: I was gay. I still laugh and sing but I am no longer “gay”; the primary meaning of the word has been changed. As an activist in the 1960s I found the most powerful word referring to authorities was the little word “pig.” However, it has now lost much of that ability to aggravate and irritate because it became common if not quite acceptable.

Words continue to take root among our common “word-hoard,” our treasury of language. They come from the usage of criminals and other marginalized people, or from groups who have developed a need for a common terminology that then spreads into common usage (e.g. words from the surfer and hippie subcultures, “Valley-speak,” hip-hop terminology.) Words from banking and business do occur but have far less chance of becoming part of our daily speech unless propagated through extensive media usage.

When words are the only resource you have you learn to use them with discrimination. You become aware of their strengths, what they can do for you and to you. It is only a small step from realizing the power of words to seeing their value. If money is power, then the power of words is riches. Who knows this and uses it carefully will never be poor.

Blessed are the rich in language for they are the rich in spirit.

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