The Corner

Culture

Steps into a Larger World

William F. Buckley Jr.

When was the last time you heard from President Ford? I cite him at the beginning of my Impromptus today, for he has been on my mind recently. I also talk about Egypt, the March for Life, Wayne Gretzky, and other things.

Earlier this week, I had a note about foreign words and phrases in my articles and others. Kevin Williamson wrote a subsequent post, superb. I got some mail on this subject, and would like to share a little with you now.

A reader in Michigan writes,

Do not refrain from the use of foreign phrases, Jay. I would venture that almost any reader encounters English words he doesn’t know in National Review. I know I did (and do).

I have been an NR subscriber since the 1970s. I remember reading WFB back then and bumping into words I believed could have been replaced with simpler words. I would look up his word or phrase in my Webster’s Collegiate, and, every time, his word or phrase had a nuance that was important and right. I’ll always remember my growing admiration for him because of his precise word usage.

It’s very easy to highlight and look up unfamiliar terms today. Do not rob readers of the opportunity to enhance their vocabulary. . . .

Once, someone said to Bill, “Why did you use ‘irenic’ when it just means ‘peaceful’?” “Lemme see,” said Bill, checking out the context. “Ah,” he said. “I must have desired the third syllable.”

A musical person, he was attentive to rhythm.

A reader in Georgia says, in effect, “Jay, you do both Caddyshack quotes and French phrases. You’re bound to please someone.”

Whew.

Here is some of a generous letter from a reader in Kentucky — which, in its totality, I found very moving:

Greetings, Mr. Nordlinger,

I appreciated your discussion this morning of incorporating non-English phrases into one’s writing. For the sake of disclosure, I, like others, had never seen “À chacun son goût.” I know what it means now, because of Google. But I could not use the phrase myself.

I remember the first time that I encountered a foreign phrase I didn’t know: “Je me suis trompé.” It was in an Agatha Christie novel. At the time, I was confused and frustrated — admittedly, I was a teenager, so I was often confused and frustrated — but, as Obi-Wan was to put it, I had taken my “first step into a larger world.”

Specifically, a world where writers seemed to assume that I had significantly more experience than I did — more, in fact, than I felt I ever could. I couldn’t shift between languages in a single sentence; I wasn’t conversant with Lucretius or Malory; my thoughts weren’t ever clear enough to become epigrammatic. It was wholesomely humbling, but also a bit disheartening.

I received the best education my parents could afford and effect. . . .

Years after my frustration with Dame Agatha, I would find myself quoting movies and songs to my teenage students — other people’s words that had shaped the dialect of my mind — and I would see a familiar confusion and frustration on their faces. I quoted a culture from before their birth, a distant and exotic world, as if from a history book.

That was also humbling, to be treated like a relic. . . .

I don’t teach high school anymore, but I wonder sometimes if any of my students ever investigated the references that I made, and whether they took their own steps “into a larger world.” . . .

Let’s end on WFB. He liked to quote Sir Arnold Lunn, who was a man of parts: skier, mountaineer, writer, Catholic apologist. In 1965 or so, the Latin Mass Committee requested that one mass in Latin — just one — be conducted in London. The committee was turned down, on the grounds that a Latin mass was only “for the educated few.” In a letter to the Times, Sir Arnold wrote, “Surely, in all her charity, Mother Church can make a little room, even for the educated few?”

When I went Googling for that sentence, I found a whole column by WFB — on just the subject we’ve been talking about. From 1986. Enjoy, y’all.

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