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Using 'big' words in column meant to spur closer inspection, improve literacy

Image of a dictionary. File picture: AP

Image of a dictionary. File picture: AP

Published Apr 21, 2021


The word this week is “esoteric”, levelled at my column by an occasional reader.

Let me respond by providing synonyms (words that mean more or less the same as) for esoteric: abstruse, arcane, cryptic, mystical, cabalistic, deep, heavy, hermetic, hidden, unfathomable, incomprehensible, recondite, enigmatic and ending with the worst one for me personally: vague.

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May I also point out that esotericism is accepted as a notion in a western context that cannot be proven to exist using exoteric or scientific methodology. It can only be identified and defined as acts of obfuscation for elitist or exclusivist purposes.

For example, a medical doctor might say to a colleague: The patient evinces a pathology of discomfort in the northern hemisphere of his epigastrium. What the patient had, in fact, said was: I have a pain here. The doctors were being esoteric.

My agenda for my weekly column is to promote the improvement of literacy. If in the process I use “big” words, it is a deliberate spur for promoting interrogation.

The newspaper then serves its most basic purpose which is to get someone to read, or be read to. In my view, the ultimate goal of literacy is the ability to ingest sensory input of whatever sort that will enable an individual to navigate his environment more effectively and safely.

The other point along with the “accusation” of esotericism was that the column is not read by those for whom it is intended because the paper is too pricey. My riposte is that a newspaper is the cheapest, most accessible and most varied source for the promotion of literacy, bearing in mind that literacy is, in my terms, a higher skill than mere reading (think of signification of the semiologist and sign-language).

My point is that the reading of the newspaper is not to endorse ideology but facilitate skills. I have written about this before. If one child asks one question about something seen in a newspaper, a connection is made that leads to a myriad learning areas that includes problem solving, spatial awareness, auditory discrimination, follow-up (research).

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Mostly in this time of Covid it will reconnect families and re-include parents who have abdicated the education of their children to technology and a fading teaching corps. (I am tempted to point out that adding an “e” would make that “teaching corpse”.)

Reality will tell us that perhaps the newspaper is bought by those who don’t need my ministrations in linguistic skill. But that newspaper eventually filters to the families that don’t buy them. They just filter down the food chain and become shelving, crude kites, substitute facilities and a host of other uses. They are seen.

The government’s intention to promote literacy by supplying tablets to the disadvantaged is narrow-minded. Newspapers don’t have batteries that need to be recharged. And while I am not King Canute trying to hold back the fourth industrial revolution, I am keenly aware the need to be current (deliberate pun) is spuriously unrealistic.

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To my respondent who dismisses my column as esoteric, is he referring to content or style? Is facility in language a barrier or a spur to prick the sides of future writers? I write in English as a choice. Every other language has a plethora of mythology and legends, stories, songs, poetry and games which is grist to the mill of those who strive to unlock the mysteries of verbal encryption.

Many might say in their latter years: I wish I had learnt to play guitar, or run in the Olympics. Those two regrets don’t come near the regretful: I wish had learnt to read.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by actabis[email protected]

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** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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