the secret life of words revealed

As someone who has always danced with words, I frequently face this conundrum (BTW, one of the greatest words ever, no? ): In one way, words mean everything to me; from another vantage point, they increasingly mean nothing at all.

In my reality, every letter, every sound, each phrase, each word, is a living organism. They breathe, vibrate, sing, dance, live, die and are reborn. They inhabit some vast otherwordly universe, awaiting deployment. Some bide their time patiently — others scream and wave their hands in the air to get our attention. “Pick me!” those of brave heart insist, while their quieter compatriots stand to the side, aloof, feigning disinterest though secretly aching to partner up and, in community, rise to their highest expression.

The Secret Life of Words? You betcha!

More and more, the (English) language falters, not quite able to express emerging notions. Too many words have had the juice wrung out of them. How did we go from Mother of God to Mother F*#K? How did “Holy of Holies” morph into “Holy Crap?” What have we lost when the depth and potency of “Awe” is reduced to the ubiquitous and dilute “Awesome”, or even worse, the battle-scarred “Shock and Awe?” What is a self-respecting word to think? What crime did “ecstasy” commit, forcing its fall from grace from “bliss, exultation, rapture, joy, euphoria” to illegal, laboratory-created, synthetic street drug?

Too many rich and evocative words have been co-opted by commerce, denuded, strip-mined of their power and depth of meaning, forever yoked to corporate entities who claim in their righteousness to now “own” these tender lettres lock, stock and barrel. Whole Foods, Apple, Just do it. Hope. Oxygen. OMG! WTF?

Words are being led to the slaughterhouse every day. Imagine the pain and suffering of the once-proud “your” and “you’re,” who historically held their heads up high as distinct branches on the same tree and are now glommed together and rendered unmistakable from each other. Whatever. It’s easier to simply hack them off at the knees and shoulders: UR can suffice. Imagine having brothers or sisters, and people simply refuse to acknowledge your inherent uniqueness. Your self-esteem would plummet! Imagine the cognitive dissonance suffered by humble words like cup, come, green, booty, top, bottom, ball, spin, grind, or the eternally sullied “Mission Accomplished.” Can’t you hear their pleading wails: “Mom! Dad! Is my entire life nothing but one big lie!!!???”

I am dispirited when writers struggle and thrash about as they attempt to wrestle words and sentences to the page via brute strength and literary imperialism. Calf-roping may be considered sport, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a barrel of fun for the calves! Perhaps a kinder, gentler (Ooops, co-opted phrase!) invitation would do.

If words aren’t of the mind to join up according to your personal vision, cut them some slack! These word families carry their own destinies! They speak among themselves! They know what it means to “go to the showers” (which is, of course, a phrase co-opted by history!), to be concretized into a form not of their own choosing. They are not called “sentences” for nothing — and words learn this from their antecedents at birth.

Set a place at your writing table for the words. Request the pleasure of their company, coax them as co-creators and listen to their desires. The stronger your attempts to jam them into forms uncomfortable or overly confining, the more elusive they become. Speak to them kindly, await their arrival with patience and great anticipation, and always, always be willing to let them go. Their legions are infinite, and some – as you will find – will show up tirelessly, time after time, to grace you with their presence. And of course, you will shower them with gratitude when they do.

For more on the magical, mystical qualities of sounds, letters, and words, visit this fascinating and jam-packed website by researcher and phonosemanticist Margaret Magnus.

One reviewer described her book, Gods of the Word (which I have not yet read), as “a rare, beautiful and poetic work of revolutionary science.” If you’re overwhelmed by the site, head directly for the Offer Your Opinions and Just For Fun sections.

PS: The picture is The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt.

11 comments

  1. My love affair with words began lifetimes ago. I discovered, as David Abram reminds us in “The Spell of the Sensuous,” the subtle connexion between casting a spell and spelling the words on the page. Mindful that language is ever changing into new forms of both the celestial and the trivial, I’m less concerned with the appearance of the sometimes brazen combinations of letters than with the lack of care in with which they are used.

    The ever-present trickster in me wonders if you might smile if you walked into a church and saw the letters OMG engraved into the front of the pulpit or the letters WTF engraved above the door of the local house of the rising sun. So, I leave you with this:

    On Bob’s first day in heaven, one of cherubim took him around on his orientation tour during which he offered up sweet prayers of thanksgiving for beauties of each of the rooms of the temple. Finally, they entered the angels’ restroom where, virtually blinded by the gleaming gold and silver fixtures, Bob blurted, “Holy Crap, now I’m sure I’m in heaven,” and as we often say at the end of such stories, he was enlightened.

    Malcolm

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  2. throughherhead

    I have always loved words. Together they create language, and they can be shaped into works of art. Are not these two things – art and language – essential parts of what make us human, as they are something that only we command? I found my own language, which is Norwegian, to have just too few words, and have that English relieves my need of expressing myself better. It is a language that I do not master fully, but it offers me more words. I would give a lot to have more still. We must take good care of the words that we have, for they are more valuable than anything. They are language, communication, art, emotion and humanity. Thank you for a beautiful post.

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  3. itsmits

    with words as my forte, i consider myself no less than a doctor or a scientist. as it is my words that can help someone feel better or creatively conjure ideas with words that will wow people. i invent new words everyday and feel great to have the word power.

    and this i feel is just the beginning of my life

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  4. knightofswords, throughherhead, itsmits,

    All your Comments delight and enlighten! Thank you for bringing the depth of your relationship with words to the “page.” Like itsmits, I know myself to be a healer — my modality being the written and spoken word. And, like knightofswords and throughherhead, my attachment to words is a long-loved intimacy that the word “writer” has never fully conveyed.

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  5. Outdoors2,

    Okay, Bucko, you’re going to have to elaborate a bit on that one! I never did find a definition that seemed to fit the context — although, along the way, I picked up this tidbit:

    Did you know:
    There’s a word for the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell? Petrichor, combining petros (Greek for stone) and ichor (the fluid that flows in the veins of Greek gods).

    Learned that from http://www.amazon.com/o/asin/0452288614/ws00-20/

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  6. A disestablishmentarianist is someone who’d like to change it (revolutionary, anarchist, “ME MEN MAN This Bucko” lol.)
    and in that I really don’t believe you want to change us. We need to change ourselves. The content was secret life of words and I remembered this one instantly (It’s been dead for decades), because of it’s relavence to both your outlook and encouragement.

    Wiki Answers

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  7. Once again, I am stumped by a somewhat obtuse comment. Do you mean PS Gustav, the sweet-faced rapper with the dreads and the lip ring? Can’t quite tell, but I think perhaps he’s Russian(?), which, of course, would explain your interest…(-; And yeah, he does ROCK…

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  8. Susan

    I thought I was referring to the artist who created the visual in the post. I have no memory for names, so I took your word for it, and maybe that’s not the guy? I have samples of his (whoever’s) mosaic work here and there.

    For future reference, I am really, really uneducated in the world of rappers. I think I checked out with Blondie’s so-called rapping in the 80s. Sweet-faced in the rapper community only translates for me to Will Smith (Fresh Prince) so you know how far back I’m stuck.

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  9. Susan,

    Oh. Duh. Clearly some kind of brain phizz on my part. I never made the Gustav Klimt connection — even though I had found the art, double-checked the spelling of his name, etc! And then, I wasn’t sure if the PS meant “postscript” or was part of a name — so I googled “PS Gustav”. LOL! – which is kind of hard to do while looking at yourself in the mirror!! Must have missed my afternoon nap or something…

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