when words fail us

Giving advice to writers, William Safire once said “avoid clichés like the plague.”

But in a week when my son and his wife brought our beautiful new granddaughter to visit and a third of Japan washed out to sea, it’s difficult to avoid them.

It’s easy to say she sure is cute or that’s such a tragedy. And it’s true too, and serviceable enough. But we begin to cast about for something more meaningful, and end up with phrases that hardly do the subject justice.

The baby can be as cute as a button. Japan has fallen on hard times but will no doubt tough it out. But why would we want to diminish the miracle of a newborn or the magnitude of devastation in this way? Surely every child deserves her own celebration and every human misery its own prayer.

A nice literary allusion might work. Someone wiser must have thought about this. Threads of truth must run though the fabric of our past. There must be comparisons more compelling and phrases more fresh.

But here is the problem: no one understands them anymore, unless they are willing to look them up on Google. We might get away with the suffering of Job. But not the weeping in Rammah.

Adam Kirsch explored this problem recently:

Latin and Greek are out of the question, of course, and have been for some time, since virtually no one still studies them. But even if you stick to English, it is almost impossible to be confident that your audience knows the same books you do. It doesn’t matter whether you slip in “April is the cruelest month,” or “To be or not to be,” or even “The Lord is my shepherd”—there’s a good chance that at least some readers won’t know what you’re quoting, or that you’re quoting at all.

Kirsch says allusion is a “high-risk, high-reward rhetorical strategy” and he’s probably right. Most people won’t get it, but if they do it will be quite satisfying—like strangers on the bus whose eyes briefly lock, realizing they are thinking the same thing about the way the coach lurched or the baby in the back cried.

When you write, however, your eyes don’t meet, although perhaps for a moment you and your reader see the same thing. This is why imagery is so important in writing today. And why the lines we share with others likely came from a poorly written movie or pop song, although a well-known one.

Historical and literary references seem elitist, however, unless they have themselves become clichés. And Scripture is too judgmental, we are told, as the language of faith is driven further from the public square. Yet if someone says their love is like a red, red rose, they run the risk of being taken as original.

We are the poorer for it.

Not only is our language more limited, but our values and our vision more constrained. We have no common perspective or shared discourse. We have no reference points. Literally. Most every argument lacks context. Words fail us.

And we no longer have enough sense to come in out of the rain.


How would you describe the devastation of Japan? Or who in the past explained it better than you can? Or what image does it raise?

9 thoughts on “when words fail us”

  1. The land has become as feudal as it’s peoples had been, rising up against itself, threatening to tear apart what it once supported. So too, the sea was the forceful foreign bearing what could have once been a bounty but became so much terror. The earth returns the history in its ever heavy handed way.

    I hope I didn’t boil that down to the edge of (or beyond) inconsequential. I have a friend surviving in Sendai. Every picture he sends is a pulse under my finger, showing me he’s alright.

  2. My beloved relatives, small children, too, were swaying violently on the 28th floor of a Tokyo high rise only days ago. Grandparents visiting were watching two preschoolers, while the mother took the 3rd son to karate, and Dad was on the subway to a dental appointment. And then…. What thoughts transpire when you and your loved ones are in the shock of possible and imminent demise? As the mother approached the elevator to ascend to her home, the quake hit and all was shut down. Under her feet, she felt the earth shifting and rolling unlike other tremors she had known often. She ran back to the street, thinking “At least my remaining son will have one parent if this building collapses”. And then the unfolding of “sea change” (pun intended)…. every layer of life transformed into new emotion, new daily realities, new images everywhere, new goals instantly replacing any old; survival, loss, grief, anger, gratitude, desperation….. resignation. Prayers. Emotional reunions. Words are truly NOT adequate….. especially when you have not been asked to live in and among the chasm of catastrophic aftermaths. Oh God of every event in Your universe; have mercy on us, we pray.

  3. We are the poorer for it. But I continue to use Shakespeare and biblical references and if I’m thought a dinosaur or elitist, so be it. The language is too beautiful and expressive to be allowed to lapse entirely.

    1. I agree it’s too beautiful to be lost but our own potential, just as the potential of all those after us, is so much greater because of the beauty from the past. We shouldn’t count ourselves out just yet.

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