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On the importance of words
Now and Then
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

As usual, Kathy Bradley’s column in last Saturday’s (July 2) Herald was “spot on” in many ways. First was her message of appreciation for “Doc” Patrick Spurgeon for his words of support and encouragement to her as a writer. It is good to read so many accolades for this scholar, teacher, coach and positive molder of young minds in so many places. Like Kathy, I got “encouraging words” from Doc and never thanked him. Her column also underscored the importance of words in human relationships.

Mrs. Georgia Wilkes Hilliard, my high school teacher of English grammar, was a tiny tyrant about our language. There is correct grammar — not various versions — and she insisted that I know it. I might err when out of her domain but spoke and wrote correctly in her sight and hearing. I never told her when she was alive to hear the words, but I bless her for my priceless preparation. “Rules of grammar” are not strait jackets that limit speech and writing but rational statements of existing patterns of words that make communication among people possible.

Use of words is one characteristic that defines humanness. Certainly, other living creatures communicate in ways that vary from the blinking mating signals of fireflies to the complex of vocalization patterns of whales. However, human languages are composed of written or spoken symbols loaded with abstract meanings that often are far removed from obvious physical actions or gestures. Combined with a cerebral cortex capable of storing and manipulating millions of such significant symbols, words enable humans to think profoundly, feel complex emotions and communicate all of this with some precision even through music.

Words have been a part of me about as long as there has been a me. From the time that I learned to read in first grade forward, I have been a reader, starting with classroom books. Midway through high school, I had cleaned out most of the library, including periodicals, and another treasured teacher, Mrs. Adhere Newton, regularly passed on her Time magazines. Moreover, I listened intently to family lore and local history from grandparents and other elders and to news, music and drama coming from my father’s battery-powered radio. Words took me to the past and to faraway places in the present.

In high school, I started writing, not just for class assignments but also for the school newspaper, for which I became editor. I entered essay competitions and was on the debate team. Entering the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, I immediately joined the staff of “The Red and Black,” serving for three years in various positions, including editor. Its standards were high; everything printed was critiqued in a post-publication session each week. Afterwards, I worked for almost seven years as a journalist. Words were my world, my livelihood.

Perhaps because of this background, I am sensitive to how words are used and these days there is plenty to cause irritation. I try but fail to ignore the lies, half-lies and distortions that assault us in political and other advertising. As a journalist and one accustomed to the integrity of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, et al., I am angry at what passes for broadcast news now that this thing has become a big money-maker.

I am weary with “jock speak,” especially some “coach speak.” So many of them do not seem to know anything. Asked a question, they begin their reply with “I think...” Yes, they have my sympathy for the many times when broadcasters shove microphones in their faces and ask inane questions. With minds on their coaching duties, they must say something that does not sound bad about their own players, opposing teams, fans or game officials. No wonder Coach Paul Johnson was known for curt replies. Still, “I think” adds nothing to their comments.

I understand the push for gender-neutral language on the part of people for whom traditional gender identities are ill-fitting or oppressive. However, use of plurals of personal pronouns to avoid gender specification is problematic. (They for she or he; their for hers or his.)

This is bad grammar, leading to confusion, imprecision, failed communication. What is needed is a new vocabulary for a changing social world. Humans create new words regularly. Radar began an acronym. The computer age is built on a new language for information processing and bridging terms to measure and describe it. Minds capable of bringing about a gender revolution are capable of generating a language to express it.

I am deeply concerned about internet communication. Postings on many of the platforms is anonymous. It is possible to say absolutely anything and not be held responsible. There is no way to sue for libel for a defamatory lie. To challenge lies about things political or medical just opens doors to wider publicity. Stories printed in responsible publications are subject to written challenges and lawsuits for defamation. Inability to challenge false words with true ones slashes the cords of human community.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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