The majesty of the English language

Adrian Arnold
5 min readMar 11, 2021

The great orators used the English language as a tool — not a club or chisel but a stiletto with its blade finely honed. Today we are subjected to tweets, emojis and symbols. The words of today tend to be monosyllabic and require asterisks to prevent causing disapproval. “Wank**s”, “f**k”, “c**t” have become such a large part of the modern vernacular because people have become lazy in their use of the English language which is very sad. There is no need to revert to sexually-implicit insults when there is a whole dictionary available for invective.

Shakespeare was a master of insulting verse.

“Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” (Henry VI PartI) or “the devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon” (Macbeth) and, two hundred years later, Thomas Hamilton railed against Thomas Jefferson with the words “There are approximately 1,010,300 words in the English Language, but I could never string together to properly express how much I want to hit you with a chair.”

Such insults do not need so many words. Denis Healey, the Labour Chancellor with the expressive eyebrows, described “debating with Geoffrey Howe” in the House of Commons as “being savaged by a dead sheep.” Even Geoffrey slied at that one.

Other classic insults would include — “If you were the trophy at the end of my race, I’d walk backwards”, “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person” and “I’m not offended by what you say. I’m just glad that you’re stringing words into sentences now.”

How much more eloquent are these phrases than Donald Trump’s tweets such as “Fake news” (to anyone), “No guts, no sense, no vision (Chair of Federal Reserve) and “Anarchists, agitators, rioters and looters about the Seattle protestors.

But enough of vilifications, let us look at the great orators of the past. They were masters of their language and, using not simply the language, but the delivery. “We have nothing to fear — but fear itself”, that great speech at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address. The words are very simple but it was the pause between the two phrases that made it memorable. Maya Angelou lifted the spirit of the vast crowds at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 by saying — “Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, and into your brother’s face, your country and say simply, very simply with hope, good morning.”
That is poetry using the simplest wods.

Great oratory does not, in itself, convey integrity. Adolf Hitler, for all his many evil obsessions was a masterful orator. He carried the intelligent German people into a catastrophic war largely by the power of his oratory. His set speeches were theatrical performances often equalling those of the greatest Shakespearean actors. The fact that were fuelled by hatred does not detract from their power.

Speaking of the political, it is not only on great ceremonial occasions that unforgettable words are spoken. Mark Twain said “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. (Pause) But I repeat myself.”
Humour can carry effective messages.
George Burns, of laid-back comic fame, said. “It’s too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs or cutting hair.”

The English language can dance but it is forgetting the tune.

“Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty”

wrote William Wordsworth in 1802 and the words still resonate today. Even Betjeman, pleading for friendly bombs to drop on Slough, has reminded us of the bureaucratic destruction of the English countryside. (The poem was written in 1937, some months before Germany launched their Blitzkrieg attack on the British Isles.)

More poetry -

Alas my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously;
And I have loved you oh so long
Delighting in your company.

Do you recognise the song — or are you more familiar with –

Couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Knowing my fate is to be with you?

The first, Greensleeves, was written, probably not, by Henry VIII but another Elizabethan musician, while the second was composed by Abba in the 20th century. Which song, played through your iPod earphones, would you prefer to play to your soulmate — even if the words of the first one embarrassed you? The first is musical while the second are words set to a tune.

Compliments can convey so much more meaning if payed with consideration. Consider the following –

Your kindness has left me silenced.

You are more fun than anyone or anything I know, including bubble wrap.

You are more helpful than you realise

If you were a box of crayons, you would be the biggest one with a built-in sharpener

Actions speak louder than words, and yours tell an incredible story

You are astoundingly gorgeous and that’s the least interesting thing about you

Everything would be better if there were more people like you.

There is so much pleasure to be gained from the full use of the English language. Words and definitions can bring a smile to most faces so I would like to finish with some curious definitions.

Diplomacy — A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go hell in such a way that you are looking forward to the journey

Hospitality — Hospitality is making your guests feel at home when you wish they were.

A lecture: The art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.

A conference room: A place where everyone talks, no one listens, and later everyone disagrees about what was said.

The English language can be so colourful — and so much fun — so why not try to use a little more of it? You don’t need to be a Shakespeare or a JFK but a little thought before you speak works wonders.



Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.