These and other overused expressions are words that many Americans use every day. But why? Isn’t anyone getting tired of saying the same thing in the same way? Doesn’t English have a lot of other words that might be more appropriate? After all, didn’t Shakespeare write in English? Why is it that he was so creative but we’re so dull? The answer begins with a lengthy backstory…
A few weeks ago I listened to a lecture about William Tyndale. What struck me about Tyndale was his complete mastery of the written word—he was such a masterful translator that even today many English Bibles use parts of his translation. For instance, we owe such phrases as “let there be light,” “the signs of the times,” “Peter went out and wept bitterly” (which could have been “Peter went out and cried hard”), “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” to Tyndale, and competing translations have rarely measured up to Tyndale’s eloquence and sense of verbal rhythm.
He had an incredible gift, but Tyndale’s mastery of the English language was deeper than raw talent. John Piper, in a lecture on the life of Tyndale, notes that Tyndale probably used a book called De Copia when he was a student. What was De Copia? Piper explains:
[De Copia] helped students increase their abilities to exploit the “copious” potential of language. This was hugely influential in the early 1500s in England and was used to train students in the infinite possibilities of varied verbal expression. The aim was to keep that language from sinking down to mere jargon and worn-out slang and uncreative, unimaginative, prosaic, colorless, boring speech.
All very interesting, but just how rigorous was De Copia?
One practice lesson for students from De Copia was to give “no fewer than one hundred fifty ways of saying ‘Your letter has delighted me very much.’” The point was to force students “to use of all the verbal muscles in order to avoid any hint of flabbiness.” It is not surprising that this is the kind of educational world that gave rise to William Shakespeare (who was born in 1564). Shakespeare is renowned for his unparalleled use of copiousness in language.
So basically, both Tyndale and Shakespeare were master wordsmiths because they studied hard. Because they found 150 different ways to say the same thing. This boggles my mind!
Those who are against this studious approach to language mastery might argue that “I’m just spontaneous. Words come naturally and I have an instinctive gift for language.” In response to this argument, here is a quote about military combat: “We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” I believe this is also true in speech and writing—those who apply themselves will do better than those who “wing it.” “Winging it” may sound great and it certainly helps the ego, but more often than not people’s default state is not eloquence but banality (Piper says something very similar in his lecture about Tyndale).
Let Battle Commence!
Fighting the banality of modern language can be difficult, especially with the limited vocabulary in use today. Also, I will be the first to admit that I’m not even close to being what one might call a “master of language,” so the following instructions are somewhat akin to a blind man leading a blind man… Anyway, here are some thoughts on how to increase one’s mastery of language in both everyday speech and writing:
- Read more books, especially older ones that might contain less oft-used words, because there are always new ones just waiting to be rediscovered. Ever heard the word “catholicon” before? A beautiful word, one I didn’t learn until last week.
- Be more self-conscious about words—try to notice when you use common filler words such as “um,” “like,” “I mean,” “you know,” etc. Eliminate them (this problem is one I struggle with in particular). Also, humbling as it may be, ask relatives if there are any phrases that you overuse–I find many people have certain “go-to” words that they use all the time. The wonderful thing about English is that there are always good synonyms for every word, phrase, and expression that exists, so finding alternatives shouldn’t be difficult.
- While there’s no need to toot your own horn saying “look at all the big words I know,” don’t be afraid to use new words. Make it a sort of game to find new ways to say the same thing.
- Speaking of saying the same thing, take the De Copia approach and find 150 sentences that all express an identical thought.
- Write more often.
- Dare to be ridiculous!
- Treat the world as a stage, one where you write your own dialogue. Why not attempt in everyday conversation to craft and use the best, brightest, most inspired lines of dialogue this world has ever heard? Instead of being satisfied with the mundane humdrummery of everyday speech (That’s awesome! Cool!), why not become dedicated to using the expansive English language to its fullest extent, until the greatest dialogue in the best movie ever made pales in comparison to the impromptu play of our lives?
- Have fun!
- If you’d like a theme song for this undertaking, here’s the perfect tune.
Oh, and finally, as a sort of kick-starter, here is a brief list of synonyms for “cool,” “great,” and “awesome”: