Och Tamale Magazine

Spring 2020 Volume 96 Issue 1

A letter on the art of language

President Ralph W. Kuncl offers words of congratulation to Professor Rebecca Lyons on her selection as Professor of the Year. (Photo by Coco McKown '04, '10)

This issue of Och Tamale addresses a topic I think about every day—the power of language. From the subtlety of nuance to the intrigue of historical origins, words not only pique my interest but also provide me with tools for leadership. How else can one connect, inspire, or express values and vision?

As president, I am often called on to speak at moments of significance in the lives of students or in the course of this venerable institution. These are ceremonial remarks—“epideictic,” as I recently learned rhetoricians call them. While I have no doubt most of what I say at these events is soon forgotten,
I do hope a few people might be moved and a phrase or two from my message might linger.

I don’t take the opportunity to address an audience lightly. When I work with my staff to write speeches—or letters like this one—I aspire to do more than repeat the same old saw. My goal is to add to the conversation through my remarks, whatever the topic may be. Otherwise, why bother? Admittedly, I also want to avoid boring myself.

Many of my mentors have been adept with words and have used that talent to good effect. One of them was Baltimore Choral Arts Society Director Tom Hall, a conductor I sang with for 25 years. He found a way to say “good” (or “bad”) in dozens of ways (like “trenchant” or “insouciant”), harnessing his remarkable vocabulary to inspire or provoke us to bring the music to life.

As a mentor myself, I have found language can build connections. One leadership and management technique, “appreciative inquiry,” offers guidance on how to listen with impact. Questions with right and wrong answers or that elicit judgment—“Tell me your greatest weakness”—are replaced with unconditional, open-ended ones—“What are your deepest interests?” Any response to the second type of query is never “wrong” and can be thoroughly appreciated, building bonds through understanding and acknowledgement, as well as paving the way for positive organizational change.

On the topic of questions, the pages of this magazine contain several faculty members’ responses to “What is your favorite word or phrase?” (see page 18). With all the richness of the English language, I would have difficulty settling on only one. My colleagues have noted, however, that one of my go-to words is “rubric” (from the late Middle English rubrish, originally referring to a heading or section written in red for distinctiveness). Perhaps this proclivity reveals my preference for approaching problems in a systematic way.

My desire to find the perfect word, or the perfect combination of words, has been the source of some merriment at my expense. I live to expect it. In response to my tendency to request many revisions and multiple drafts, my associates have nicknamed me “the editor.” (I assure you it’s not a compliment!) I tell my team every good paragraph should have one sentence of three words or less. Like this one. Or this! And I advocate that every speech or essay have one new, curious word. This particular essay suffers from only having had a half-dozen drafts. Previously, one of my teams presented me with a T-shirt with the number 21 on it—with all the names for numerals one through twenty visible, but copy-edited out—indicating how many rounds of edits they expected when working in tandem with me. I guess I asked for that.

The ability to use language cogently, with manifest style, can be the mark of an intelligent person. Metaphors are like that. Last month, I complimented my Board of Trustee colleagues on the “top-15 metaphors” heard at their retreat. Metaphors can be adroitly memorable or riotously risky. Language, as an art, can also be the gift of a liberal arts education, such as we provide our students at the University of Redlands. Words are not only our shared heritage, they are also personal. They can be the vehicle for self-expression and the agent of one’s own unique gifts and impact on the world.

With this in mind—and in this era of social media when truth seems to matter less and words often seem too harsh—may we all use the intrinsic power of language with wisdom, intention, and kindness.

Forever yours,

Ralph W. Kuncl, PhD MD
University of Redlands