As a historical novelist, I’ve enjoyed reading the personal diaries and letters of men and women who lived during the War of 1812 — a young boy’s account of seeing a conquered American army being marched through the streets of Montreal, or Sarah Ridge Schuyler’s account of being ushered into the magnificent-but-unfinished Capitol to attend President James Madison’s inaugural.
While these personal entries are priceless snapshots of key historical moments, their beautiful language touches us on a personal note as well. Consider Sarah Schuyler’s appraisal of a rival. She speaks with laudable civility, calling her “extraordinarily entertaining” and the time shared as a “pleasant diversion,” adding “her face was exquisite, as perfect as porcelain.” Today's vernacular would likely translate this to “really pretty” or worse yet, “she’s hot.”
I was also working at our local high school during this time. The deterioration of language alarmed me, so I began employing a strategy to motivate the use of higher level word choices. I would point out such words with, “Good SAT word!” The students seemed to like the recognition and actually started applauding impressive word choices made by their peers.
Another tactic I began utilizing at school was aimed at reducing the amount of swearing I heard in the halls. I made posters of a quote used by President Spencer W. Kimball: “Profanity is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully.” I plastered them in my work areas and made little cards with the saying on it. When a student would swear within my ear space I’d “arrest” them and make them read the card, then I’d tell them if I caught them swearing again, they’d owe me a quarter.
I collected dozens of quarters, which I used to reward the “reformed,” but the most interesting thing began to happen. Kids would drag their vocabulary-challenged friends over to me to have me “give them the treatment, too.” There was a remarkable drop in swearing in my areas, just as there has been a rise in the level of their vocabulary.
They just needed to have the expectation raised.
Laurie LC Lewis is the author of six novels, including her "Free Men and Dreamers" historical series.