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.