I recently read in a educational journal that "practioners" in universities must "prioritize their options so as to utilize maximized resources." I've been thinking about going back to school, but if they write like that in Academe, I'm afraid it's a foreign country -- and I don't speak the language.
"Utilize" reminds me of the warning against the -ize words by E. B. White. Back 1959 he called them "fuzzy," and he's still crusading against them in the latest edition of The Elements of Style. Twenty years ago he was distressed by the then-new word "personalize," as in "personalize your writing." All good writing is the personal thought of the writer directed to the reader, and White said he'd just as soon "Simonize my grandmother as personalize my writing."
"Utilize" and its illegitimate child, "utilization" -- now commonly accepted everwhere -- are, in truth, imposters who have usurped the rightful place of the legitimate little three-letter word, "use", which, pronounced differently, means both utilize and utilization. That's an example of the remarkable adaptability and vigor of our true heritage of simple Anglo-Saxon words.
The excessive use of the -ize words is almost as bad as those computer words, "feedback," "input" and "output," which seems to be lurking everywhere. I recently read (yes, in another "education" article) that students should "decipher current information input so as to maximize future information output." I think the writer meant they should study for a test.
If we feel that technology and computers are taking control of our daily lives, why should we help them along by speaking their lingo? Computers may have input, but people have ideas. We're forsaking our lively and adaptable English language for the lifeless jargon of the very machines that we dread. Isn't that like giving up to the enemy, learning the language of the avancing army -- without even putting up a fight?
When the beleaguered English people stood alone against the German juggernaut in 1940, did they start learning German? Did they go around saying Achtung and mein Gott? Did Winston Churchill stop reding his beloved Macaulay and Gibbon and begin reading Goethe?
Forty years later, in the arena of language the deadly forces of jargon are massing against us. To be sure, we do have some valiant leaders -- Edwin Newman, William Zinsser, William Safire and Richard Mitchell, professor of English and author of a pungent, witty book, Less Than Words Can Say. But these crusaders need reinforcements. The situation is so perilous that even in a recent Atlantic Monthly the purpose of the prestigious Grenville Clark Prize was described as "to commemorate and facilitate outstanding public service . . . in world peace." Have we sunk so low that we're now giving a $15,000 prize to someone who "facilitates"?
Another college educator, who shall remain deservedly anonymous, conducted a lengthy study and found that "in a situation of rivalous competition, both affiliative and nonaffiliative persons felt less like entering into a communion-based intimacy with others than would be the case in a noncompetitive situation." If I knew what he meant I might agree. With language like this, if educate means "to lead forth," what kind of country are these modern educators leading us into? Why would anyone want to leave home?
If we do undertake the perilous journey toward knowledge, we need guides who can interpret the territory. How can we explore new avenues to world peace or learn to balance the demands of the economy and the environment unless we discuss the problems in language that makes sense?
It's time to return to the writing pad and to realize the value of simple, vivid words with precise meanings. And perhaps we need to start asking questions -- to stand up at a PTA meeting or in a college class, take a deep breathe, and say "I dont't understand. What do you mean?"
Actual communications, the exchange of facts, beliefs, doubts, opinions -- even jokes -- might begin to take place. When that happens, it could be the facilitators' finest hour.