Wordplay by Trevor Plumbly

As she is spoke

Since losing most of my operational sight, I rely heavily on language to gauge reactions. Blindness, despite the myth, hasn’t improved my hearing capacity, just forced me to place more value on word use.

I find it hard to accept the current trend of cutting perfectly good words in half without comment, though every time I moan about someone butchering language, I get the same chorus, ‘language is constantly evolving’. If it is, then surely it’s preferable that the process is tailored to improve it rather than reduce it to truncated piffle. Problem with that theory is that it requires work and current thinking where language is concerned seems to be ‘less is best’.

How long will it be, I wonder, before conversation is regarded as an irritating distraction from electronics? Think I’m kidding? Try sitting in a group sometime without someone using one of these adult pacifiers. Dependence is reaching the stage where most adults would start to feel vulnerable if they were parted from their face furniture for a toilet stop. Cellphones are doing a great deal of our basic thinking, but now it appears that ‘textspeak’ is starting to rule over good language use.


Educated wordplay was once a form of sophisticated entertainment; ‘piffle’, courtesy of PG Wodehouse, perfectly described the art of aimless speech and conversation, the Reverend Spooner twisted phrases for fun and Edward Lear showed us nonsense could carry its own intelligence. The goal was to embellish language use. A classic example is in the movie ‘My Little Chickadee’: when introduced to Flower Belle (Mae West), Cuthbert J Twillie (WC Fields) responds, as only Fields could, by pronouncing, ‘what a euphonious appellation!’ At another stage, he apologises by offering ‘pardon my redundancy’. He was a shameless scene-stealer, using an extensive vocabulary and a love of words to do the job and they did!

On a more serious note, Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is remarkable, not only for its inspirational message and superb oratory, but its faultless construction. Sentences tailored to suit aspirations and accusations were delivered with total mastery: at one stage he accuses his opponents of using ‘words dripping with interposition and nullification’, which probably exceeded the vocabulary of most of his audience, but they remained connected. The speech is as relevant and moving today as it was over 50 years ago and still serves as a master class in how valuable a command of language can be.

Teach your children well

Will today’s kids enjoy a grasp of oral and written language? I somehow doubt it. It’s hard not to come across as a grumpy old git, but I reckon it’s fair to ask our educators how much leeway should we allow devices to play in early education and how much does the reliance on them reduce the value of the work ethic. Look at what we’re losing already: who needs mental application and memory when there’s a couple of buttons to do the job for you? And what about the social damage, why bother with the emotional ups and downs of peer friendship when you’ve got a more controllable pal in your pocket?

Martin Luther King Jnr speaks to a vast crowd

I still believe that young people would benefit enormously if one day a week was mandated device-free for them, teachers and parents; this would allow everybody to exercise their thought processing and communication skills. Let’s face it, any good athlete will push his/her body to maintain full fitness for when it’s needed, just as successful trial lawyers and actors break their own comfort zones to train their memories and vocal skills, what’s wrong with using the same formula one day a week for kids?


Device addiction in young people is now a recognised problem, causing attention deficiency and withdrawal symptoms where confiscation is used as a disciplinary measure. That alone should send a warning to educators and parents that we’re running a risk of denying our children the gift of full speech. Way back when, I remember recitation was a basic part of English lessons. I had no great love of poetry, so standing in front of 30 odd sniggering kids reciting ‘The Highwayman’ from my handwritten copy didn’t thrill me much, nor did ploughing through a few of Dickens’ works provide much entertainment; what they did do was to make legible writing, clear speech and reading ability essential parts of my education.

Compared to today’s system it was mental force feeding; the excuse, ‘I’m not good at it’ only invited yet more repetition until an acceptable standard was reached. For me it worked and as a result I developed an enduring love of words, still re-reading stuff I stumbled over years ago. Now, looking at my grandchildren hunched over smartphones, reliant on a provider plan and battery strength to communicate, I wonder if convenience is somehow short-changing them.


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