A word about words

I love words; poetry, songs, vivid prose, anything beautifully spoken or written. These things have the power to move me to tears. I lament, therefore, the corruption and abuse of our English language in contemporary society. Spelling is not taught. Young people can’t even read cursive writing, let alone write. They type by preference or, when backed into a corner, ham-fistedly shape block letters. That corner of the brain responsible for the transfer of thought onto the written page is, as we speak, atrophying in humankind. A computer keyboard or the touchscreen of a mobile phone is a poor substitute for pen on paper.

Reading, apart from menus and billboards, is too hard for this so-called time-poor generation, social media addicted, short of attention span, bent upon instant gratification.

The current Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, indeed, seems unable to make a public statement which can’t be expressed in three words. He may, of course, have been advised by his minders that his audience won’t understand or recall more than three words.

Sound-bites and photo-ops; silly hats, colourful vests and catchy phrases constitute the present level of statesmanship in Australia. Politicians have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, actually administered, of course, by media consultants.

A delightful moment of schadenfreude occurred recently, when a gushing admirer of our ex-prime minister, John Howard, rushed up to him, on camera, to say how pleased he was to be able to speak to him in person, after years of chatting on Facebook. A shaken Mr Howard blurted that he didn’t have a Facebook page!

I am not, by nature, an early adopter of new technologies. Call me a luddite, but please, not a philistine. The reason for my reticence has been a philosophical, well nigh a moral concern for the preservation of all those precious human accomplishments which digital technology, in its blitzkreig domination of human civilisation, has threatened to extinguish; not just language, but art, literature and classical music, for instance. Less obviously, romance, spirituality, and, indeed, love.

I delayed buying a mobile phone for years, Not only because the devices were the size of car batteries and heinously expensive, but because I didn’t want to surrender my modicum of privacy. Eventually I was forced to buy one, because my pager became obsolete and as a doctor I, quaintly enough, considered that I should be available after-hours to my patients.

Like most other human beings in the developed world, I now have a smartphone and a laptop. I also, rather redundantly, have a desktop computer. I maintain, however, an uneasy relationship with these devices.

In the late 1980s it became necessary to have a computer in my office, to facilitate practice management. It also replaced my secretary’s typewriter. (She typed flawlessly, with an excellent grasp of medical terminology, at 150 words per minute). It was almost another decade before medical software for general practice reached a sufficient level of reliability and usability for me to bite the bullet and begin to computerise my patients’ medical records.

I confess that I was fairly obsessive about record-keeping. Good contemporaneous records, in my opinion, are the best defence against the scourge of medico-legal litigation. One may practise medicine well, but one must be verifiably seen to have practised well when one’s standard of practice is called into question.

Many general practioners now have computerised records, but keep only the briefest notes, (as they probably did previously also, in an illegible scrawl on file cards), basically using only the software’s pick-a-box options and automatic prescription records. This is all the more likely to be the case, I’m sure, in the pressure-cooker environment of corporatised general practice. This is slovenly, unethical, and not even good common sense.

As the saying goes: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Poor and inaccurate record-keeping is, in fact, the greatest obstacle to electronic storage and transfer of medical records, quite aside from concerns about confidentiality, security, permanence, reliability and expense.

I dislike email as a mode of communication. I have always taken great pleasure in writing letters to family and distant friends. I flatter myself, despite being a doctor, that I have not only a legible but a moderately fair hand.

When I was at university, my future wife went overseas for three months. I wrote a long letter to her every day, on an aerogram form, in minute script, using a 0.1mm Rapidograph draughtsman’s pen. Forty years later she still has all those letters in a shoebox. Had I been able to email her, would she have kept the emails? Would she, or our sons, or their children, now or hereafter, bother to untie them, unfold them and read them?

I despise Twitter. I’m reluctant to use SMS. I hate the shorthand, moronic trivialisation of the English language in these bastardised forms of communication. I fume when television stations run viewers’s tweets on the bottom of the screen during allegedly serious current affairs programmes. What possesses people to actually tweet their drivel to the producers, apart from a narcissistic compulsion to see their banal comment and their hashtag onscreen, to have their five seconds of fame? Why do producers stream this rubbish? Is it because of the “reality TV” imperative, or do they perhaps not trust the actual programme to be sufficiently engrossing? I’m told that there is now a “second-screen” phenomenon; eminently distractible viewers multi-task on their phones or tablets in front of the television.

Text-speak, that base dumbing down of human language, (not just English, I’m sure), has spread like a social disease across cultures, across generations, and from the tips of our fingers to the tips of our tongues. It appears in children’s schoolwork, office memos and in common speech. Mankind will soon perhaps, by a process of reverse evolution, be reduced again to gutteral grunts and sign language. Tantrums and the baring of teeth. Well, maybe emoticons.

Disclaimer: I am a self-confessed pedant and also an English language teacher to foreign doctors and nurses. I employ etymology and semantics. I teach my students about families of words, Latin and Greek derivations. This helps immensely with the acquisition of medical vocabulary, and they love it!

I also, unashamedly teach them correct grammar. If words are the bricks of language, grammar is the mortar. It’s so very important, and not just for doctors, to be able to communicate clearly and precisely. In the movie “The Last Emperor”, the Japanese prince’s English tutor said to him “If you cannot say what you mean, you cannot possibly mean what you say.”

Talking to a friend a few years ago, reflecting back on my years as a family doctor, I made the comment that I had done a great deal more good by what I said than what I did.

Knowing and doing are a part of the medical vocation, but listening and saying the right words, having the right words at one’s disposal, are vital skills to which to aspire. The same might also be said, I suspect, of every other form of human interaction.

These days I have more leisure to read novels and the news, to do crosswords, to compose limericks, (which I do obsessively), to talk, to blog, to write cranky letters to newspaper editors. I’m even toying with the thought of a novel. May words never fail me!


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