Language (in which I present Sayers’ sage and timely warning about words)

Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Bodleian Library)
Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Bodleian Library)

[From an address Sayers gave in February, 1942 (“The Creative Mind” in Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays, Dorothy L. Sayers. Gollancz Ltd., 1946. p. 57). These words are as true now as then, but even more pressing because of how immediately and how widely words are today cast out into the world.]

“It is as dangerous for people unaccustomed to handling words and unacquainted with their technique to tinker about with these heavily-charged nuclei of emotional power as it would be for me to burst into a laboratory and play about with a powerful electro-magnet or other machine highly charged with electrical force. By my clumsy and ignorant handling, I should probably, at the very least, contrive to damage either the machine or myself; at the worst I might blow up the whole place. Similarly the irresponsible use of highly-electric words is very strongly to be deprecated.

“At the present time we have a population that is literate, in the sense that everybody is able to read and write; but, owing to the emphasis placed on scientific and technical training at the expense of the humanities, very few of our people have been taught to understand and handle language as an instrument of power. This means that, in this country alone, forty million innocents or thereabouts are wandering inquisitively about the laboratory, enthusiastically pulling handles and pushing buttons, thereby releasing uncontrollable currents of electric speech, with results that astonish themselves and the world. Nothing is more intoxicating than a sense of power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher, the advertising salesman of material or spiritual commodities, are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words, and are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or (as frequently happens) have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and become the victims of their own propaganda.”

Lord, help us all – especially those of us whose vocations are language-centric – be mightily careful of the work we do, never forgetting the power and import (and sacredness, for did you not speak the universe into existence?) of the tools we wield.

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