In order to respond to the anecdotes of Mark Ward, I’d like to introduce the reader to a story of my own. Growing up I was what you might call a “bookworm.” I spent much of my free time reading and writing. Similar to Ward’s account of his childhood, I aced every spelling test. I always got the prize for reading the most books over the summer. I started learning how to speed read in AP English Literature in high school, mostly so that I could spend more time with my friends instead of doing homework. Despite my brazen laziness, I loved words, and I loved books – just not the British ones I was forced to read in High School. Despite my lack of motivation, as a self-proclaimed word-lover I forced myself to understand why works like A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, and Frankenstein were such important contributions to the available corpus of English literature.
The reason I am telling my reader this story is to show that Mark Ward does not have a monopoly on the label “language nerd.” There are tons of us out here, and as a fellow “language nerd,” I find Ward’s writing style and perspective rather offensive to our dwindling guild. In this article, I want to comment on the writing style of Authorized and show my reader why Ward’s book is so offensive to “language nerds” everywhere.
Giving a Bad Name to “Language Nerds” Everywhere
Most “language nerds” are conservatives when it comes to language. We cherish the moments when we can knock the dust off of bygone words and introduce them afresh to a modern audience. We fear the idea that “Twitter Vernacular” could become the lingua franca some day. “Language nerds” are not scared away by learning new words, we love them. In fact, I signed up for an email list that sends me new words every day, like “avuncular.” Being a language nerd is much more than simply loving vocab words, however. It is about appreciating and learning the evolution and etymology of words. It includes studying the differences in syntax and writing style and genre in literature. Being a “language nerd” is not just being able to use a thesaurus, it is about loving the English language – all of it.
What is frustrating is that Ward’s writing style seems to contradict the claim that he is a “language nerd.” A “language nerd” would never employ the impetus of The Emperor’s New Clothes in a textbook display of a weak analogy to call the English of the KJV “at some point between natty and nude” (24) A “language nerd” would not insult English by using “erganomock” and “snelbanjaloo” as a point of comparison for the comprehensibility of the KJV (65). Every single “language nerd” I know, even the atheists, have a profound respect and appreciation for the KJV as a literary work. It speaks volumes that Chistopher Hitchins has a higher evaluation of the KJV than Ward (14).
What is most interesting, is that Ward seems to violate his own principles within the pages of Authorized. Strangely enough, he uses words such as “fastidious” while claiming that the word “commendeth” is too difficult to understand. He is fine employing “reverential” (101) while saying that “and it came to pass” is not vernacular English. He uses the phrase “blessed fluorescence” (67) while saying that “apt” is incomprehensible in the phrase “apt to teach”(44). He casually drops the word “blithely” (26) in a section discussing how he didn’t understand words in the KJV. I could make a list of Ward’s use of uncharacteristically difficult words that he apparently understands better than the much simpler vocabulary of the KJV. How often do you use the words “prodigiously” (14), “erudition” (9), “apropos” (69), or “hapless” (9) in your daily speech? If I were to take Ward’s vernacular argument and apply it to his book, there would be many places that I would recommend an update.
The paradox within the pages of Authorized is that Ward violates many of his own rules. He unnecessarily (and ironically) employs Latin with the knowledge that his reader likely doesn’t know it. He does this while unabashedly comparing the KJV to the Latin Vulgate. Apparently Ward thinks that his reader can understand actual Latin, but not the KJV, which he compares to the comprehensibility of the Latin Vulgate. In addition to utilizing Latin, he randomly drops flowery words that his reader will have to look up. If Ward’s argument is that we should understand the words we read, why does he repeatedly beat his reader over the head with Latin phrases and advanced vocabulary? This seems to violate the very principle Ward is setting forth in Authorized.
After reading Ward’s book twice, I cannot help but point out the inconsistency of his thesis, and the hypocrisy of his writing style. He has demonstrated himself to be an unreliable source for the critiques he issues towards the KJV and KJV readers. He imposes an extreme version of the problem that he claims the KJV imposes to his reader. He slaps KJV readers for making equivocations while constantly equivocating the English of the KJV with Shakespeare, the comprehensibility of the KJV with the Latin Vulgate, and KJV English with Old or Middle English. This is one of those cases where it isn’t wise to throw rocks in glass houses. What Ward seems to miss is that being able to understand words is far more important than those words being in “vernacular English.” As a fellow “language nerd,” I expect more from somebody claiming to be in the dwindling population of people who love the English language.
Perhaps the reason that Ward’s book resonates with so many is because people simply don’t read anymore. He can get away with this kind of rhetoric because people don’t know how insulting he is being when he implies that his reader simply cannot read all that well. In a world where the average person does their daily reading on Twitter, it does not surprise me that people have forgotten that you occasionally have to look up words when you read. The reality is, learning new words is a part of the joy of reading. Expanding your vocabulary is part of the adventure. Discovering a new, or old use of a word is a part of the rush of being a “language nerd.”
Now I’m not Mark Ward, but if I spent so many years learning to read the KJV, I’d be proud of it. I wouldn’t openly brag about my willful ignorance of phrases in the KJV, I’d learn to understand them and teach others how to understand it. In every place Ward gives as an example of a passage he “still cannot understand” in the KJV, many people, including children, can. As a “language nerd,” Ward really missed a big opportunity to get people excited about the English language. Instead, he spent 137 pages talking about how people can’t understand English, and why people shouldn’t read the literary masterpiece that is the KJV. Seems like a pretty big “language nerd” party foul, if you ask me.