During halftime of the NCAA lacrosse finals, two Duke players were describing the key to successful passing and shot making. “Me and him have to have eye contact.”
Me and him?
There was a time not too long ago when “me and him” would have been considered bad form and poor grammar. More formal language was the key to success in making the world a better place. Today however casual language like “me and him” is considered more “authentic.” Formal language is deemed to be detached. The poles have been reversed. Should we care? How does formal language make our world and us better?
The answer is found in our rear view mirror. The poles began to be reversed after World War II. French audiences were hungry for American films and Hollywood had a backlog of five years’ worth. Yet the new films initially disturbed French reviewers. Called film noir, these 1940s and 50s crime dramas were dark, emphasizing moral ambiguity and blurring the lines between good and evil.
This began to reverse the poles, said Simone Weil.1 In real life, “Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. This is the truth about authentic good and evil.” Film noir reversed the poles. “With fictional good and evil it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm.”2 Weil foresaw a new world where everything would be upside down: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”3 Thank you, Hollywood.
Movies migrated to our lips in the 1960s, writes linguist John McWhorter.4 The sixties’ rebellion against authority included overthrowing formal language for the casual language of everyday life (or, in McWhorter’s words, beer-drinking speech). Casual language gained a reputation as intimate and “authentic.” Formal language was disdained as detached and distant, boring and insincere.
Big Deal. That’s what many people assume. Yet for those who embrace the Judeo-Christian faith, formal and precise language – a wise word – helps make the world a better place. For in this tradition, God spoke wise words to create the heavens and the earth: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.”5 “O Lord, how many are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.”6 God then handed us the keys. Our “human job description” is to keep shaping the world.7 Adam immediately got after it by wisely and properly naming the animals.
In ancient times, “names” were used to describe how things ought to be. Adam was not simply attaching nametags to things. Rather, he displayed an “insight into the natures of the various creatures, an insight needed to make his governing possible.”8 Insightful people draw on incisive words to describe right and wrong, along with good, better and best. This requires formal language, which is why Richard Weaver believed “a divine element is present in language.”9
Speech is, moreover, the vehicle of order, and those who command it are regarded as having superior insight, which must be into the necessary relationship of things.10
“Me and him” has become routine nowadays. It used to be considered rude, the reversal of “common courtesy.” The “fairest hope of restoring our lost unity of mind” is found in formal language of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets along with poetry, writes Richard Weaver.11 Reading the Scriptures daily and writing a few lines of prose wouldn’t hurt either. For those who want to make the world a better place – properly describing it as God says it ought to be – it’s wise to remember Sir Francis Bacon’s dictum: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
1 Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher and activist. Most of her works were published posthumously.
2 Simone Weil, “Morality and Literature,”_(an essay published in Cahiers du Sud, January 1944)
3 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, translated from the French by Emma Craufurd, 1972), p.62
4 McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is author of Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, (New York: Gotham, 2003).
5 Proverbs 3:19
6 Psalm 104:24
7 This is often called the “Cultural Mandate” and is found in Genesis 1:26-30. The phrase “human job description” is taken from Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), p.22
8 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988), p.49
9 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p.148
10 Ibid, pp.148-9
11 Ibid, p.166