An interview with Tom Heehler
Tom Heehler: To quote from my book, when you write and speak using eloquent language, two very curious things happen. One, your audience cannot help but to associate that eloquent language with power. And two, they then associate that power with you. It's as if by the mere use of eloquent language, writers and speakers are able to acquire and project power.
What's more, when you instill in someone a reverence for words -- which is what I think The Well-Spoken Thesaurus does -- you instill a reverence for language and education writ large. And I'll tell you how this happens. In the same way that the physical act of smiling can make you happy, speaking eloquently can make you more knowledgeable, because when you speak using eloquent words, your mindset changes. It changes in the same way that your mindset changes when you, ahem, talk dirty during sex. Right? The very act of talking dirty makes you feel sexier, and likewise, the very act of "talking smart" leaves you feeling smarter and more knowledgeable. There's a causal link between the words we use and the feelings we have. And when you feel smarter you begin to believe that you are smarter. You become more disposed to cerebral pursuits. You become more curious. You develop an affinity for bookstores. You acquire more raw knowledge for the sake of raw knowledge, which helps you to become more creative. Suffice it to say, you are no longer ashamed to be seen walking home from school with a book in your hand.
So it's not about projecting an image of learnedness, it's about adopting an attitude of learnedness, an attitude that rejects know-nothingism (the notion that "common sense" can compensate for want of a proper artistic education). It's an attitude that scorns the use of expletives in every other sentence, an attitude that is suspicious of Ebonics, and suspicious of adults who rely almost entirely on child-like speech patterns in the name of minimalism. If you're David Foster Wallace, you can get away with that sort of thing. But for the rest of us, if that's all you've got, it's just a little sad. These so-called minimalists who think it's pretentious to call bushes shaped like animals "topiaries" just don't get it. They're the ones who are pointing and laughing at our proverbial kid walking home with a book in her hand.
SB: In your view, what causes this contempt for what we think of as well-spoken language, and education in general? Why is it so uncool in some communities to be seen as studious?
TH: There are several reasons. With respect to inner-city black communities, it's a function of the resentment harbored for past and present sins, sins committed by the white establishment. Elevated language is often associated with the higher reaches of that white establishment, and so you don't have to be a linguistics professor to figure that one out. But prejudice against words, or prejudice against advanced verbal ability in general, has been around since the dawn of humankind. I call this type of prejudice, wordism. In ancient Sparta for instance, wordism ruled the day. Their use of words was rather, well, spartan. Words were for sissies, and if you know anything about Sparta, sissies were held in very low regard, which is a little ironic by today's standards given what we know about the typical Spartan's bisexual proclivities. Nevertheless, in Sparta you were expected to be a man of action, not a man of words. God help you if you ever used a word like "proclivities." Such words were for girls. Even today we still hear echoes of this same prejudice, as in the expression, "Real men don't major in literature."
So here's the deal. When a culture is dismissive of advanced verbal ability, the size of the average vocabulary within that culture is thereby limited. When you limit vocabulary, you limit the density of grey matter in the brains of adolescents. And when you limit the density of grey matter in the brains of adolescents, you run the risk of consigning your culture to a generational failure loop of teepees and mud huts. Each dumbed down generation produces an equally dumbed down generation, and so on, and so on. This may explain why the Parthenon -- among countless other creative achievements --was built not in Sparta, but just a rock-throw and a spit down the road, in Athens, where, as it just so happens, words were cool, and therefore vocabularies were comparatively enormous. The Athenians were not genetically superior to the Spartans, just attitudinally superior. They didn't have more pack animals; they had more word animals. Attitude is everything. And when it comes to vocabulary, size matters.
SB: But didn't the Spartans conquer the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War?
TH: Sure they did. And the Huns did their fair share of conquering, as did the Cherokee, the Vikings, Al Capone, etc. You can get by for a while on brute force alone, but eventually your wordism will catch up with you because it will inhibit vocabulary. And what do the Spartans or the Huns or the Vikings have to show for all their erstwhile military might and their self-imposed limited vocabularies? Show me what they created; don't show me what they destroyed.
SB: How is it that a truck driver thinks up the idea for The Well-Spoken Thesaurus?
TH: In between my trucking and landscaping jobs I was going to night school at Harvard, where it was borne in on me just how poorly spoken I truly was. I would enter into various discussions with classmates and instructors, and the words did not come easily to me. I mean, I can produce intelligent thoughts, that isn't the problem. The problem is, how do I translate those thoughts into intelligent words that are reflective of who I am and what I mean. And because there were no books on which I could rely, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Whenever I would happen upon a particularly eloquent word or phrase, I would write it down and pair that with what I would have said. Rinse and repeat 5000 times; you've got yourself a book.
TH: First, I would ask my readers not to judge the book by its cover. The words and phrases I suggest as replacements are precisely that: suggestions. They require a measure of discretion on the part of the reader, as do all words in every thesaurus. Word choice, as we all know, is a function of personal taste, context, and audience.
TH: The message is that anyone can become well-spoken within a matter of days, that eloquence is no longer a function of pedigree, who your parents are, or what Ivy League school you got into. Eloquence is a simple matter of replacing common everyday words with well-spoken alternatives.
TH: Let's say you've just written the phrase, "it makes me want more" as part of a rough draft, and now the time has come to polish it up a bit. If you were to look up the word "makes" in a conventional thesaurus, you would find a couple dozen synonyms like "causes" or "forces," none of which help you to improve your wording in any substantive way. The expressions "it causes me to want more" or "it forces me to want more" -- they don't elevate the diction, do they? However, when you look up the word "makes" in The Well-Spoken Thesaurus, you get the word "leaves." So how would the word "leaves" help you to elevate your diction in this case? ... Exactly -- "it leaves me wanting more." So we've taken an ordinary word like "leaves," and we've used it in an extraordinary way to enhance our prose.
SB: Aside from the extensive list of powernyms in the book, you also feature a section called "Rhetorical Form and Design" in which you highlight specific techniques to more well-spoken speech and prose. Tell us about some of them.
TH: Well, there's the technique of omission. So instead of "I never get tired of," you would say "I never tire of." Just omit the word "get." It's easy, right? So you try one. I'm going to give you a sentence, and I want you to use simple omission to render it eloquent. So here's your sentence: "I have a taste for all things that are classical." The answer is, "I have a taste for all things classical."
Apt aphorisms by Tom Heehler excerpted from The Well-Spoken Thesaurus:
- Common Sense and Education: The more you think you have of one, the less you think you need of the other.
- The foolish read to escape reality; the wise surrender to it.
- Good writers indulge their audience; great writers know better.
- The educated don't get that way by memorizing facts; they get that way by respecting them.
- Nuance: for best results apply with sledge hammer.
- Courage is the ability to ignore your options.
- Science embraces facts and debates opinion; religion embraces opinion and debates the facts.