Dead Language

By: Terry J. Coyier

Words remain the single most important device poets have at their disposal. Without them, we have nothing. With them, we can construct anything. But, word choice is crucial, and it either builds a sturdy bridge, providing the reader with a safe crossing into your world, where they can delight their senses in a transforming poetic experience, or it’s merely scattered pieces of wood that the reader must then attempt to leap between, therefore, being unable to enjoy the ambiance and scenery along the way. If, in your attempt, you throw in what I like to call dead language, you will completely rip your reader out of the scene and into another, thus ruining the experience even further.

Allow me to explain what I mean by “dead language" (not to be confused with extinct language). As you know, each word includes denotation (the most direct or literal meaning) and connotation (the indirect, implied or associated meaning). As writers we must be aware of these as we write and realize that connotation plays an extremely large role in how readers perceive our work. Of course, I realize that you cannot write with everyone in mind; that would be impossible, but we must take into account that some wording is, in fact, so famous that it is basically now dead language. Why is it dead? Simply because when a large population of people read it, they will immediately be torn away from the scene you are creating and transported to another time and place, thus killing the moment.

This very thing happened to me just the other day while brainstorming with a friend for article topics. Originally this article was going to be on tough poetry forms, as a follow-up to my last article. As we discussed difficult forms, my friend sent me one of his poems to read. Right in the middle of the poem was the innocent, two-word phrase “grassy knoll." To some, this means nothing. To a gal, living in Dallas, even though I wasn’t born until after 1963, the grassy knoll means one thing to me…the conspiracy around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It means this to many people, not just me (just check Wikipedia). So, as I read along this lovely poem, in a fraction of a second, in my head, I was watching the footage of JFK’s motorcade and seeing him get shot – something I have seen many times in television documentaries.

So, what are some of these dead language phrases? Here are just a few:

~I have a dream (Martin Luther King Jr.)
~Finest hour (Winston Churchill)
~Fear itself (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
~Ask not (John F. Kennedy)
~One small step (Neil Armstrong)
~Tear down this wall (Ronald Reagan)

To hear recordings of some of these wonderful words go to:

http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/comm201e/speech.html (a couple short clips)
http://www.americanrhetoric.com/top100speechesall.html (top 100 speeches)

Some of these you may or may not recognize. Many others exist and many are being created as we live today. I’ve stuck to historical phrases because those were most familiar to me, but popular phrases can come from anywhere. I remember things like “Make my day" (Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry) and if I saw that in a poem would surely hear him saying the words to me. The point is, you simply must keep your audience in mind as you write and try to not use dead language.

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