On Huckleberry Finn, Words, and ‘Splendid’

Cover of "The Adventures of Huckleberry F...
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I like the word splendid. Recently, in a previous post I was presented with the opportunity to use ‘Splendid’ in a sentence. I have to confess to a certain gratification, a sense of overall satisfaction bestowed upon me by the simple fact that I could use a word I seldom pull from my lexicon. Splendid.

Words can be wonderful fun. Sitting listening to a well-spoken, cleverly delivered speech, an interview where two quick witted participants fence, or merely engaging in a cross the counter chat at the local ‘In and Out’ store can deliver unto the listener a comforting and reassuring impression that the world is indeed not falling into decay or the intellectual abyss.  Having a pleasant read, allowing one’s self to happily become caught up in the text is a wonderful escape.

Clothes – another word I like almost as well as splendid. I find I like to ‘say’ clothes rather than read it. Say it with me slowly, ‘Clothes’. It has a certain ‘Sound Sex’ to quote Stephen Fry, a kind of sensual single syllable, multi-syllabic-ness that seems to suggest there’s more to the word than appears in the simple enunciation of it.

Taken on their own, words are wonderful.

Of course, words don’t stay alone; they congregate at the whim of the author or speaker. They band together in one instance like a chorus, in another like a mob. They are the framework upon which ideas are mounted, or the gallows from which condemnation hangs.

I like words. I find most of them appealing and can’t, for the life of me, think of one word I don’t like. No matter how crass, impolitic, rough-hewn, or degenerate no one word strikes me as bad. Even the favoured swear words have their place in the lexicon. The words that are banned or replaced in favour of political correctness have a special place. It is a failing to presume there is any other word that so completely and utterly sums up the degradation, history of abuse, demoralisation, and contempt that is embodied in the word: ‘Nigger.’ Slave doesn’t cut it, though ‘slave’ is a perfectly good word. Slave is not the ‘right’ word; nor is it in this context the ‘correct’ word. In the newest edition of the classic Huckleberry Finn, words deemed ‘offensive’ have been replaced with words that apparently won’t offend. No thought has been given by the professor, who came up with these changes to the offense caused by so completely altering the meaning of the book, the story. By exchanging the word ‘Nigger’ for the word ‘Slave’, he has inexorably pulled a filter, a gauze of acceptability over what is intended to be a word that rankles the throat, that sticks there with every utterance and permanently etches the fact of human abuse of another human into the reader’s mind. No one can read the original text of Huckleberry Finn and come away with any impression other than a negative one of the notion and practice infused in a nation that would brand those among it: ‘Nigger.’

As I said, I like all words. Yet, I recognise there are some that should only be pulled from the shelves of vocabulary with the greatest care and others that while contextually correct in by-gone days, should be left aside from modern usage save in reflection of those past times as a reminder of how conditions were. One cannot retroactively make an era polite and inoffensive by changing the words of that era. In fact, it is sometime prudent to pull out and dust off these callously used words. It does us well to be reminded sometimes of who we once were.

Words are reflections of ideas and while I would never advocate their careless and unfeeling use, there are times when the blunt instrument is the right one. However, we need not dwell on any one word. There are thousands to choose from. We are blessed with a dictionary so overpopulated with words that one could clog the synapses with the excessive use of their verbal and written chewiness. Words are egalitarian. They, and nothing else, deserve to be referred to as such. Anyone can use words; they have only their desire and willingness to stop them. While there are great words and little ones, right words, and correct words, there are no wrong words. I have said in the past, and others have said it better, context is all. There is a word for every moment and every audience.  Words should be used without fear.

Despite this wondrous freedom words provide and the blessings of those whose nations recognise the notion and fact of ‘Freedom of Speech’, some words should be used with care. Fair enough, as with all things forethought is always a good thing. However, if at all possible, use them all. Embellish and exaggerate. Use great heaping spoonfuls of words to dress and ornament your ideas. Buttress your notions with arching terminology, with the rich and sturdy descriptors that have through the ages been accumulated for liberal use. Grow your idea in the fertile earth of variety.

In the end, it all comes down to words. What will you say? What will people say about you? What will they say when you are gone and all that remains are the words you have left behind, the masses of them in terms and phrases, advice, and thoughts strung together over a lifetime spent using them. I can only think of one word I would hope for, ‘Splendid.’

Kind regards,