Words and Things: An Introduction to the “Word Citizen” Blog

The ability to encapsulate ideas in symbols and then to share those symbols with other people is one of humanity’s most profound gifts. Whether we use language to coo to our grandchildren, to tell our spouses how much we appreciate them, or to yell at other drivers through the sound barrier of our car’s closed windows, we use words to affect our lives.
Often, we are aware of our reasons for plying language. We are intentional in complementing our sons-in-law. We mean to affirm our students. It is our explicit aim to create friendly relationships with gatekeepers who decide whether or not our novels get published. This purposeful manipulation of our transmissions is fact. There’s no mystery to our employing nuanced regrets when we’re unable to attend a celebration. There’s no secret to our habit of halting our praise of our children’s teachers just shy of speaking slander. There’s no riddle to our layering sentiments when emailing birthday greetings to siblings.
However, the majority of the time, when we spin our words, we do so with little regard to the sensibilities they create. We bark out chores to family members, forget our “pleases” and “thank-yous” at the grocery store, and write unimaginative congratulations on the cards we deliver to retirees. It’s absurd, subsequently, that we feel surprised when our spouses can’t remember our favorite types of flowers, when our neighbors’ understanding of “quiet music” differs from our own, and when our “liberal” publishers ask us to rewrite our prose in conservative ways.
What’s more, even if we’re to some extent aware of words’ power, we get sloppy. We forget that words constantly create realities. We neglect to bring in mind that whereas all sets of symbols ferry meaning, some do so more permanently and more poignantly than others. Granted, we grasp that a queen saying “you’re knighted” changes an individual’s status as does a member of the clergy saying “you’re married.” Nonetheless, we overlook that a parent saying to a child that he, not his behavior, is “good” shapes that young one’s identity forcefully, and that a critic praising a book shapes that product’s sales.
Long ago, few persons knew how to read or write. Our society depended on oral discourse for information and entertainment. Visualize town criers and of troubadours. Eventually, the elite learned how to recognize the combinations of letters found in their missives and books. For a while, though, scribes continued to be responsible for recording humankind’s ideas.
Centuries later, the upper class, too, started to volley words. Moreover, after the printing press was developed, less specialized denizens replaced scribes. In due course, newspapers and magazines grew in number and in kind. A sizable portion of the civilized world learned to read and write. Movies and television followed printed media as widespread means of dispersing ideas. Orality, again, became the favored system of public communication.
Today, inversely, we’re hailing the written word. Convergent media are largely responsible for this shift. On the one hand, students whom, earlier, might have poo-pooed writing classes, voluntarily seek rhetorical proficiency. Grammar sites have become web favorites as have sites that expound on how to substantiate arguments. Although not compulsory, it’s become desirable to be facile with language to win at romance and business. On balance, The City of Los Angeles is far from the only place suffering crowded highways.
In short, the Internet’s a mess. For instance, a decade or so ago, blogging became the accepted, electronic replacement for writers accustomed to creating human interest stories for major printed venues, such as The Jerusalem Post. Contrariwise, at present, it seems as though everyone and her sister has accessed WordPress or some comparable instrument to tout their rainwear, their translation services, or their opinion on gluten-free bread. Correspondingly, despite the fact that the advent of eZines and of eBooks has enabled many talented creatives to finally find homes for their output, today’s conduits have concurrently brought much tosh and bosh to audiences.
Especially with the introduction of self-publishing, there exists a lot of fluff and nonsense among available offerings. Modern balderdash ranges from fake news to hackneyed narratives. Additionally, because of the ease of use of so many communication channels, the preeminence of any one gets regularly challenged, thus leaving word players at a loss as to where to send their messages. Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube continue to be significant social influences, but Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Vine, Flicker, and other pathways, too, successfully compete for a share of the marketplace of ideas. As a result, writers, both skilled, and less so, find themselves applying crazy amounts of time to merely getting noticed. These days, too often, promotion trumps quality when it comes to recognition.
Notwithstanding those truths, need and prowess are separate commodities. It still takes tens of thousands of hours to become a professional. Namely, our society has a surfeit of would-be writers, but a much smaller number of communication experts. Both the former and the latter enjoy frolicking in wordy worlds, but only the latter tend to unswervingly pay attention to communications’ purpose, audience, and mode. Consider, by analogy, that it’s fairly easy to walk along a sidewalk, but much more complicated to ride along on an electric skateboard. Both walking and skateboarding can get residents from point to point, but only the more sophisticated process is fun, fast, and requires mastery.
Accordingly, those of us who are hypervigilant about our treatment of words, whether we scribe truths colored by fantasy, nonfiction, or fantasy colored by truth, fiction, whether we are PR experts, elementary school children enamored of onomatopoeia, or playwrights, are answerable for sharing understandings of the function and craft of language. We individuals, who get excited by the California comma or by adverb-laden manuscripts, should divulge why words make and break cultures and how they do so.
I’m one of those culpable, communication observant types. I came to my awareness by natural inclination, by personal interest, and by trade. As a toddler, allegedly, I fashioned stories for imaginary playpen friends. As a young adult, I moved around nouns and verbs, and characters and settings, as readily as I mixed hues when painting, or spices when cooking. During that span, I wrote scholarly papers and newspaper columns. I taught language-focused courses, including: Semantics, Communication Ethics, Expository Writing, Interpersonal Communication, Social Values and Popular Culture, Introduction to Editing, The History of Western Thought, Communication Theory, and Feminist Prose.
As a mature adult, I’m an editor, and an author, I write nonfiction books about Israel, parenting, and writing and assemble fictions featuring two-headed wildebeests, heartsick lovers, Zionist settlers, and mischievous high school geniuses. In this blog, “Word Citizen,” I’ll do my best to illuminate the everlasting magic of words. I’ll share ways in which we use words effectively and ineffectively, skills we need to move ideas from inception to publication, and particulars of the publishing industry.
Even though our means for sharing ideas has been rapidly changing, human nature remains pretty consistent. As such, the rules of discourse that worked thousands of years ago still work today, but the evolved vessels by which we fly our ideas need our fresh appreciation.