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WORDS: will they last forever?

AS one who has pursued a lifelong love affair with words - bouncing from print journalism to an overseas microphone to a studio cubicle in Hollywood - I view their present status with something less than rapture. For myself, the romance has been topped by a happy landing in the world of books, where words hold sway unchallenged, beyond the pressures of deadlines, the time slots of network radio, or the meddling of cutting-room technicians.

But just about the time I discovered publishing houses, the rest of the nation was discovering television. Millions sat riveted before electronic shadows dancing across a living room screen, and the old Chinese maxim - ``One picture is worth a thousand words'' - acquired a new dimension. The pen might still be mightier than the sword, but it was up against a tougher customer in the tube.

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In the decades that followed, I found a sanctuary of sorts in the sphere of books, and so did my beloved words. But elsewhere words have fallen on hard times. Overlooked and undervalued, battered by careless media, squeezed dry by computer technology, they have become the homeless wanderers of our culture.

``Verbicide, the violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning,'' was the theme of an angry protest by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and was echoed in ``My Fair Lady'' by Professor Higgins's blast against Eliza Doolittle for ``coldblooded murder of the English tongue.''

How would these gentlemen have reacted to such current radio staples as ``a new innovation,'' miscreants who ``flaunt'' the law, and ``soup that eats like a meal'' (to be consumed aboard a yacht that ``sleeps eight people'')? Or to reports in major newspapers of ``hairbrained schemes'' that ``reek havoc,'' and an ``imminently qualified'' candidate who anticipates a ``critical crisis''?

Letter writing has been relegated to the programmed platitudes of floppy disks. And among the missing here in southern California is its sister art of conversation. Exchanges stumble forward in a trickle of clich'es broken up by the ubiquitous ``y'know.'' Shrinking campus vocabularies have created the threat of a future repartee level approximating that of the Stone Age.

It's not so much the purity of the save-the-words camp that concerns me as it is the poverty of the alternative. Language is the lifeblood of communication, our link to each other and to our human past, the ideational bridge to the future. And it holds the key to nuances of national culture.

The way people choose to express themselves tells us volumes - literally - about their thought processes and their values. The ringing ``Aux armes, citoyens'' of ``The Marseillaise'' is addressed not to a faceless mob but to the citizens of the nascent First Republic; the word reverberates with the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution.

``We, the People,'' solid and straightforward as a blacksmith's hammer, bears the unmistakable stamp of the pioneers who settled New England.

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The Arabic word maalesh (no matter) sums up the fatalistic indifference of lost centuries; the Chinese ideogram for ``trouble'' depicts two women under the same roof.

James McNeill Whistler, declining to live in Germany, explained that he could never be comfortable among people whose word for glove was Handschuh (literally ``hand-shoe'').

Exploring the verbal patterns of our neighbors promotes the kind of understanding essential to the atomic age. That understanding recedes when words are simply exploited for their associative powers, pitting ``Great Satan'' against ``evil empire,'' swathing guerrillas of various backgrounds in ``freedom fighter'' mantles.

Happily, a turnaround seems to be under way. Several media sages have begun beating the drums for literacy. Prof. Allan Bloom last year jolted a complacent academic establishment with his book, ``The Closing of the American Mind.'' And the US Department of Education is offering guidance to parents on how to steer their children toward libraries.

As William Hazlitt observed in 1822, ``Words are the only things that last forever.'' So they will be back. And I intend to be ready. I have a hoard of fine terms in reserve, each with its singularity of color and timbre, never used because I have not yet found the right context in which to place them.

I gaze fondly at ``penumbra'' and ``epiphany''; at ``troglodyte,'' ``incubus,'' and ``chiaroscuro.''

Their day will come. Words are as beautiful as wild horses, and sometimes as difficult to corral.

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