May 22, 2011

The Power of Diction

Print More

From everything I’ve learned and observed over the past four years, The Secret to Success at Everything (as if I’m qualified to give such advice) is a good vocabulary. Or at least a good enough vocabulary to convince people that you actually have a good vocabulary. Word choice is frequently overshadowed by the sexier elements of Proper English: grammar, sentence structure, rhythm and flow, punctuation. Yet I’ll never forget the lesson taught in the most valuable academic class period I’ve ever attended (no, it wasn’t at Cornell): “There are no synonyms.”

It seems stupid, and downright incorrect, at first. But let it sink in — just like no objects are ever truly, 100-percent identical, no two words ever mean the exact same thing. Each word in a set of so-called synonyms has slightly varying connotations, and is loaded with different meanings derived from its previous uses throughout history. Words have constructed identities and they’re always morphing. Four years ago, “fences” meant something very different from what it means now; so did “hope” and “change,” and the phrase “yes, we can.”

The value of communicating exactly what you mean — not a close approximation, but exactly what you are trying to say — cannot be overestimated. It’s the difference between a message sent and a message received.

To get your point across, identify the words that will make people listen to you, and use them until the words themselves are permanently associated with the message you are trying to send. If you want to run for a “student leadership” position, talk about “transparency,” developing “sustainable” programs and “reaching out” for “shared decision making.” Speak slowly, so that voters (whoever they might be) can hear each and every word, and so they’ll believe that you truly know what those words mean and will follow through on the promises they represent.

If you want to pass a liberal arts class, identify two buzzwords from that class — say, ”political freedom” and “educative process” — and smash them together into the thesis of your papers: “The authors of each of the three narratives expressed their ideas and values about political freedom in the form of a narrative because of narratives’ educative process.” Come up with the thesis first, then use more buzzwords to fill in the other 12-15 pages; your paper will blend in with the other 30 (or 130) written by students who may or may not know what they’re talking about, but happen to be using many of the same words.

If you want to woo a girl, tell her she looks “beautiful” — not “good” and definitely not “hot.” If you want to erect bridge barriers without causing an uproar, be sure to call them “means restriction” not “chain-linked suicide fences.” If you want to mold the social system into one that bears less legal liability, explain it as a “culture change,” or a “safety issue, not a moral issue,” and hope that people latch on to the explanation that they agree with, and ignore the one they don’t.

For all the technological and intellectual advances humanity has achieved in our species’ existence, language is the greatest and most important — it’s how other ideas are communicated and generated, and it has powered all of our other innovations from agriculture (“let’s grow food instead of chasing it”) to the Mars rovers (“let’s use remote-control robots to explore a different planet”). We have infographics, emoticons, pictures and charts, but none of them communicate as clearly and accurately as words. Until we evolve the capability for mind-to-mind transmission of emotions and thoughts, words will matter more than anything else, so choose them carefully.

The moniker of this column was salvaged from my long-defunct sports column. “Effectively wild” is a baseball term. It refers to a pitcher who, despite the inability to consistently throw strikes, manages to get batters out. I’m not sure if the moniker birthed my life attitude or vice versa, but I’ve tried to spend my time in college as effectively wildly as possible. I rarely lingered over a decision for too long, living in (and for) the moment, but always moving toward some idealized future that I couldn’t, and still can’t, describe.

I didn’t know what I was doing the first time I wandered to a newspaper recruitment meeting at 139 W. State Street, or to a “smoker” at 100 Cornell Avenue. I had little idea what would happen when I declared my major or slept through a Chinese oral quiz or the first time (of many) that I stayed up all night to study for a test. I’m not sure why I followed my hall to that first orientation week party, why I decided to come back for rush week, or why I felt like kissing the pretty girl in the gladiator costume on Halloween. It’s beyond me why I signed up for some insane process called “compet” to be an “editor” and receive angry mail and phone calls every day, all day; then signed up for that same process and responsibility two more times. It’s straight-up counterintuitive to have followed those shadowy, candle-bearing individuals into that car. To this day, I still can’t even explain what I was thinking when I made the decision to leave sunny(ish) northern California to go to a scary school in frozen Ithaca that produces overworked, undervalued graduates.

It seems like there was no data, no precedent informing any of the decisions that led me here, to the 143rd commencement at an Ivy League university. Everything could have turned out a million different ways, and I’ll never know if those alternate endings are better or worse. Nor will I really care, because it all seems to have worked out, and, if given the chance to do it all again, I truly would not change a thing. And for that, I’d like to say to anyone and everyone who had any impact on my college experience: thank you.

Keenan Weatherford is graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences. He was the Editor in Chief of the Sun’s 128th Editorial Board. He can be reached at

Original Author: Keenan Weatherford