Looking over the list of words I’m writing about, it strikes me how high a percentage are common words – not fancy, unfamiliar words of the literary-technical variety.
Not always, of course. I just wrote about “epistemology”, an uncommon word meaning “the study of how we know what we know”. That’s a word I almost never use (even though I love it) – precisely because it isn’t common.
I prefer to speak and write using ordinary, everyday words, the kind with which all of us (myself in particular) are most comfortable. Common words.
That thought led me to notice that “common” is itself an uncommonly beautiful word. It has a lovely sound, coupled with a wide range of meanings – many of them subtle and extremely useful.
The Merrian-Webster dictionary (online at merriam-webster.com) lists for “common” no less than 14 meanings under seven distinct groupings.
Without citing them all, let’s just note that most of these usages carry positive, pleasing connotations. “Common” is a compliment! Most of the time, anyway.
There are exceptions. The word is sometimes used in ways that are negative or neutral. It can mean cheap, coarse, vulgar. As in “common thief” or “common hooker”. It also can mean ordinary or easily found. As in “common housefly” or “common stock”.
But please consider “the common people”. Here we have a distinctly upbeat usage, very much at odds with derogatory terms like rabble or riffraff.
Common folk are the vast majority of good, decent, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who show up, do the work, pay the bills, and treat their fellow human beings with compassion and respect.
There’s the “common touch”, which Kipling recommends in his famous poem, “If”: “…walk with kings, nor lose the common touch”. This touch certainly is something to which one should aspire. It refers to one’s ability to communicate clearly with, and relate easily to, common folk. We want our bosses and political leaders to retain the common touch. Otherwise, they become isolated, ineffective, and possibly dangerous!
Then there’s “common sense”. An ability to see what is obvious yet easily forgotten. Who doesn’t want that?
There’s nothing wrong with wild brilliance, lightning flashes of insight, or a gift for “thinking around corners”. We need our visionaries and mad scientists. Yet even our Einsteins and Edisons excelled in large part because they filtered their genius through their abundant common sense.
Let us not forget “common speech”, “common language”, “common parlance” and the like. All of which imply clear speech, easily understood. Speech that illuminates, communicates, conveys. Common speech is the antithesis of ivory-tower doubletalk and technical jargon.
My favorite usage is “common ground”. That suggests the firm foundation on which we stand together. It consists of all the things that unite, rather than divide, us. It’s the shared values and understandings that foster peace, rather than war and conflict.
Sadly, our culture trains us to focus on differences and distinctions, not common ground. Diversity is good – even necessary – but when we attach to it so much importance that we forget our commonalities, we all lose.
In my view, there is extensive common ground underlying such warring camps as atheists and theologians, evolutionists and creationists, progressives and conservatives, literal-minded religious fundamentalists and liberal-minded mystics, and folks for and against things like abortion and gay rights.
In all my books – such as The Challenge of Baha’u’llah, The Metropolis of Satan, and Becoming America’s Religion among others – I’ve worked overtime to map out common ground where conventional wisdom sees none. To reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.
The results sometimes have been startling. Even to me! Whether that’s a good thing or bad isn’t mine to judge, but it’s fun to watch.
And either way, I’m just getting warmed up.