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I’ve always been interested in words. I think them an extraordinary phenomenon. They’re sounds produced by the larynx given meaning by the brain. They’re abstractions that somehow result in actions. They can expand the intellect and arouse the emotions. They’re the very foundation of human culture. They depend for their effectiveness on the fact that humans have ears and can hear, on the fact that sound moves on waves. Just words, just sounds produced by the larynx, yet a giant step: complex communication.
Words can stand for things, but also for feelings, and for non material concepts. They move in a complex way between these categories, clarifying, arousing, obscuring and suggesting. They help us survive, initiate our actions, and explore our world.
“It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away” as the Bee Gees put it.
Words can have a very complex history, almost a culture of their own. I was made very aware of this when I read Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976) at college. Williams sees some words as cultural artefacts fulfilling a changing role in societies as these evolve, so that the same word can mean different things, or acquire overtones of meaning. Words can become politicised, become revolutionary or “politically correct”, express prejudice, usually refer to social power structures, as they do within the British class system. They can become meaningless, as “nice” has, hardly ever used anymore in the sense of “exact”. Williams in fact was politicising etymology.
Here’s an example. “Democracy”. It was at one time in the fifth century BC, rule, or control of Greek poleis, by a party that included citizens with low property holdings and resources. The party was created by aristocrats excluded from power and consisted of aristocratic office holders and a following of artisans and peasants whose vote was used to get the leaders of the party into power. At one time it was led by a “tyrant”, an aristocrat who ruled much as a king would. Qualification for membership of the party was through the citizenship of both parents over at least two generations, and excluded women, children, wealthy non citizens and slaves. It represented about 20% of the population of a polis such as Athens. This practice of democracy (rule by the demos, or ‘people’, who up to that time literally hadn’t existed as a concept), and the rhetoric it engendered, has become an ideal in Western civilisations ever since.
Thomas Jefferson was imbued with the idealism contained in Thucydides’ depiction of Perikles, who advocated something very like “equal rights” for that very small proportion of ancient Greek society. It fuelled Jefferson’s rhetoric and found its way into the US Constitution, along with Tom Paine’s Rights of Man – and slavery. Georges Danton in turn used ideas in the writings of all these men to construct a rationale for the French Revolution. And Perikles, Thucydides, Jefferson, Paine and Danton have had an enormous role in creating what modern Western nations call Democracy.
Yet clearly the word had a different effect in each of these societies, and meant different things to all the men who used it. Perikles used it to justify imposition of an empire on unwilling subjects. Jefferson used it in a war to divert wealth from the British to finance the running of American states. Danton believed it justified a war in the streets by ordinary citizens against the French Army supporting the ancien régime. Modern democratic states believe that so called representative democracy guarantees the rights of huge nation states and their citizens.
Sometimes the word ‘democracy’ has been used in surprising ways. Are the Democratic Party, the Peoples Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party equally dedicated to the practice of democracy? The National Socialist German Workers’ Party sounds very democratic, but wasn’t. One wonders about the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea, Yemen, Congo and China. Perhaps ‘democratic’ is becoming a ‘nice’ word.
In fact, in practice, in reality, all states, modern and ancient, are bureaucracies, run by unelected officers who are able to control rulers and politicians by using an arcane list of procedures necessary to carry out all the business of government with which only they are familiar.
So in this instance, and many others, it seems words, or at least the word ‘democracy’, has a rhetorical, emotional overtone more important than the practice of what it is allegedly about. Perhaps this is why democracies are often so oppressive to their citizens, as much so as more right wing regimes. We have to ask, not only are the differences between ancient ‘direct’ democracy and modern ‘representational’ democracy significant in defining democracy, but also why ‘democracy’ so often is not just a system of government but a cause, a flag under which we fight, and at worst a soporific under which we are manipulated.
So here’s another quality of words. Not only does the same word have a history, not only is it used differently for different purposes in different periods of history, it also has a tenuous relationship with ‘reality’. That is, words are sometimes descriptive of what is actually happening, and sometimes used in a different way, a therapeutic way, to reassure, for instance, or to delude, or to inspire. Just as the alarm “tiger!” inspired that extra effort from Neolithic man.
After the Education Act of 1870 became law in Britain a large class of semi literate electors became common in many Western European states, and rhetoric was used by the more educated, politically active classes to gain their support. This had also been the case in ancient Athens, where orators swayed the emotions, not the reason, of citizens in order to rule the state. Many mass movements of the 20th century have demonstrated how meaning is the first quality to suffer in this misuse of words. As nations become larger, and controlled more and more not by direct contact with rulers but through media, this manipulation has become more overt and more extreme. A style of writing called euphuism led the way, an Elizabethan fashion that sacrificed meaning to euphony. Separating words from their meaning can have certain advantages for the unscrupulous, and George Orwell made the definitive comment in 1984 through his description of Newspeak. Here is an example taken from Victorian England (and its Empire) which introduced the idea of the morality of words, just as it did to chair legs. Some words were just rude (“legs” for instance became “limbs”). Meaning was sacrificed to propriety.
A Dictionary of Euphemisms by Neaman and Silver (1983) tells the story of the invasion of the islands of Britain, and the words that accompanied these invasions. Every schoolchild who has looked up ‘dirty’ words in the dictionary knows that ‘proper’ words for certain acts and functions are, for instance, defecate, urinate, buttocks, penis, vagina, flatulence and to make love; and that there are ‘obscene’ equivalents, shit, piss, arse, cock, cunt, fart and fuck. What this has to do with British history and invasions is that the ‘obscene’ words are Anglo Saxon, spoken in normal conversation by German tribes, and the ‘proper’ words all derived from Latin and spoken by successful invaders such as the Norman French. The bad words are all derived from Old German or Old English. ‘Cunt’ is mentioned by Chaucer in the 14th century as a general descriptive word. Only ‘piss’ comes from Old French, and has a reputable history even today, as in ‘pissoir’. The invaders thought they were better, more educated, and the Anglo Saxons, and their language, were dismissed as ‘rude’ , that is, uneducated. This distinction escalated into the Victorian class war and both sets of words acquired moral values. It became ‘nicer’ to use the ‘correct’ words. The rude words posed a threat of revolution by the masses.
This function of words is descriptive, supposedly defining the things and actions they describe. But they are really defining our relationships to the things and actions they describe, and that relationship is constantly changing. Neaman and Silver explore the extent words are used to help us come to terms with situations that make us uncomfortable, such as death for instance. It’s not so bleak referred to as ‘the long goodbye’. They also chart the way that words are used to control us. Advertisers and bureaucrats routinely use words to hide their activities. The advertisers are taking your money, the bureaucrats are taking your freedom, and neither want you to notice. A ‘preventive war’ sounds vaguely comforting, until you realise it is similar to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. ‘Terrorist’ is them, ‘freedom fighter’ is us. And people are still asked to die in defence of democracy, when conflicts of the past have shown repeatedly that wars are fought to enable a power elite to retain greater control.
Who can take seriously the claims that people can and do become wealthy by posting lots of advertising emails on the internet? Millions do. Products of all kinds have huge advertising budgets and expensive packaging because customers really believe the claims they make, to make you look younger, to give you more virility. Here is yet another quality of words. They are magic spells that enchant us, confuse us, mislead us, and we are complicit in this attempt to control. We will gladly trade our freedom for some intangible dream of attaining a super state if we only buy a product, only vote for the right politician. All along we are ostensibly describing acts and objects, yet really describing our own reactions to these. Consider the difference in our reactions to the words ‘house’, ‘home’, ‘orphanage’ and ‘institution’, all of them buildings offering shelter to humans.
I was surprised to read in Adin Steinsaltz’ Simple Words (1999) that a large proportion of words we use show an awareness of spirituality. Steinsaltz is of course biased, and uses ‘spirituality’ as a synonym for ‘non-material’. He lists words that describe a state whose connection to the material world is unknown or controversial. Personality, self, soul, memory, intuition, psyche, mind, spirit, thought, emotion, intelligence, and the ability to decode those sounds made by the larynx and apply meaning to them, speaking, and reading. Then there are the words that describe a reality we cannot perceive directly, such as the microscopic worlds of sub atomic particles and microbes, and radiation beyond our senses, such as radio and ultra violet waves. These words In fact describe most of our activities and preoccupations, far more so than words like, body, house, car, television or computer. We live in a world we cannot experience just through our senses. These ‘spiritual’ words are important, for through them we can expand our knowledge and awareness of that part of the world we cannot see and touch.
This is the creative aspect of words. We use words, and always have, to create the world. Planning a hunting expedition involves imagination, the visualising of its success and the tools needed for that success. Even being aware of sensory data and applying meaning to it, such as, ‘the knife is sharp, the knife has cut me’ is a creative act. The interaction with another one we love is largely done by monitoring non material reactions of each of us. He/she does not love me because he/she smiles at me or kisses me. Love is something else, and we strive to understand it. To admire another, to respect them, to sacrifice one’s self interest for them, these are some of our not very exact definitions. Love is one of Steinsaltz’ simple words (as of course is faith, and god). Affection, fondness, attachment, devotion, passion, ardour, desire, lust, infatuation, liking, appreciation, care, regard, solicitude, concern, warmth, friendship, kindness, charity, relationship, love affair, romance, liaison, affair of the heart: these are some of the words we use to express the range of emotions and consequent actions we term ‘love’, going from self interest to altruism, charity to lust. The trouble is we find it difficult to define an emotion, as emotions are mixed, and continually changing in nature and intensity. They have to be continually redefined and monitored to see what they’re doing at any particular moment. Their intensity can change, but once the emotion reaches indifference we need to take some action, whether commitment or escape.
We’re tugged in two different ways in how we experience the world. The smell of corn or daffodils, the feel of fur or rounded river stones, the sound of violins or bird calls, all signal a direct and immediate way to ‘know’ the world. Yet we are aware at the same time that the ‘world’ extends beyond the senses. Learning to balance both types of apprehension, from non material awareness to sensory, makes us ‘well balanced’. Or else we become ’visionary’ or ‘self indulgent’. Like Charles Blondin crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, we can’t pay too much attention to the rope, nor too much attention to our balance: we need to do both.
To really know another, whether the one we love, or our perception of outside reality we usually call god, we need to have a strong sense of self founded on our senses and a strong sense of all that is outside our senses’ perception, which we soon imagine to be the major part of reality. And somehow keep our balance.
Words can be a call to action as they once were in Paleolithic times when they first emerged. When our ancestors first learned to cry “tiger!” in ancient Cro-Magnonese, it meant “run” to every human then on the planet, run, with heart pounding, ears singing, breath gasping, legs aching. Run, or die. That visceral reaction to words is still there, in every beautiful poem, silly pop song, cry to storm the barricades or political rally. Think of the Nuremberg Rallies, think of a World Cup riot. The ‘meaning’ of words comes a long way second.This could be called the rhetorical quality of words.
Words are a tool for survival in a different way, as we use them to map our experience. We feel strongly about having a home, yet plan carefully the building of a house. Part of the world as we are, we use the world to define ourselves, by defining objects and actions around us. We are human because a tree is a tree and a horse is a horse. Our descriptions of things, like a house, may be limited, but we have created a civilisation by such examination. This descriptive quality of words is what we think words mainly are, defining, examining, grouping and evaluating our selves and our environment. These are the words of dictionaries.
Words are also our means of exploring the world we know is there, even though we cannot see it or touch it or hear it. This is the creative aspect of words, words to experience a reality just out of reach, our selves, our reality, the world beyond our senses. We know we love someone, that they may love us, but what is love, how may we recognise it? This intangible world can be explored through words, though we must proceed with caution, trying not to give this class of words values belonging to other types of words, rhetorical or descriptive.
To communicate well we must understand how words are being used, by us and by others. Are our emotions being aroused through rhetoric, are we being invited to see existence or situations clearly through accurate description, or are we exploring concepts and unseen experiences using words as creative tool? We must respond appropriately or we will misunderstand each other. We can use the same words as another, yet in a different way, and often be unaware we have not communicated at all. As we often don’t.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.