Words matter. This is the lesson of Christian classical education. This is the logos of John 1. This is where there is love. It’s why I sometimes get alarmed. Rhetoric is the art of speaking so that your listeners can hear you and find truth. In a recent Circe Blog post Eva Brann took us through a lesson on how words mean using the word ‘odyssey.’ I asked my 9th grader what the word meant to him and he said, “trip, adventure, voyage.” My 6th grader, Alex, said “sad.” One of them thought of a definition while the other thought of a connotation. They both knew the story of Odysseus but Alex’s answer was purely emotional.
One of the nice things about being in a family is that you develop a common culture and I suppose that is also nice if you go to the same school your entire life. My favorite Facebook page of all refers to the town I grew up in: You Know You’re From DeLand If….and almost every single memory someone posts is common to me. I skated at the Date and Skate and I worked at Poppa Jay’s. I had Mrs. Varnadoe for typing in 8th grade. I loved growing up in DeLand and I love remembering it.
When we share common memories we can communicate. We can make distinctions. When the generalizations are common, the distinctions can be clearly communicated using the right words at the right time.
In my new favorite book on education, Beauty in the Word, Stratford Caldecott makes the case for using the word “remembering” to describe the grammar stage of the trivium. This is a staggering improvement over thinking of the grammar stage as the poll parrot stage. The grammar stage is the time we have to download our collective memory to our children so that they are tethered to the past and not adrift in the universe. The value is not in the skills they pick up or the facts they accumulate; the value is not in memorizing but in remembering. Sometimes we use memorizing to help us remember, but memorizing is only a tool while remembering is vital (from the Latin Vitalis, meaning belonging to life).
Recently I used the word ‘audacity’ on Facebook. I meant it in the classical sense of extraordinary boldness, courage or chutzpah. I meant it as a compliment. Sadly, the modern connotation of the word, I learned, is almost entirely negative. I had been offensive. I was not communicating effectively to the people on Facebook because I had made a distinction without taking the connotation into account. It was a rookie mistake and one I am sure I would have avoided if I had taken a little walk along the river with Socrates before posting to Facebook. As a penance I am spending the summer reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. We do not interact with Dorothy Sayers on Facebook. It is the job of the communicator to communicate. Blogging has taught me so much about this and I have often rebelled because sometimes it is more fun to play with words than to say anything. It is not the fault of the mass of humanity on Facebook that I used the wrong word, but it is a little taste of where we are headed as a culture without shared memories (connotations). Our vocabularies will be increasingly forced into the lowest common denominator.
I suppose the safest word we have will be a grunt.