What are Words?


The creation by word power of something out of nothing ~ what is that but magic?

Words form the thread on which we hang our experiences.
Aldous Huxley

And here are some of my thoughts written long ago:

A Writer’s Pen is a magical instrument of creation. Put some blank sheets of paper in front of it and, like the pail in the Tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, words cascade from its interior in torrents, and are carried away on the pages.

Go with the flow” is the pen’s Prime Directive and it does just that: words continue to pour forth until, finally, the Muse within dries up and calm is restored. This is a time, to rest, reflect and enjoy the fruits of creation; the “clean-up crew” will arrive soon enough.

“Mopping Up” is the responsibility of the Editor’s Pen whose Prime Directive is to “Keep it simple and sensible.” In a totally dispassionate way, the pen slashes its way through the text leaving a trail of red in its wake. Again and again it assaults the words, until the pages resemble a storm-tossed sea in which the living and dead words float aimlessly, awaiting the return of their creator, who will then transform them into even more beautiful patterns.

Consequently, it has always been a source of fascination to me that these little black marks, because that is all that written words are, possess so much power and at times, cause so much happiness or grief. In the past, using a pencil, one would bring them to life, and, with an eraser, some of them would come to a quick and untimely end. But there were always others ready to take the place of those that had fallen by the wayside. Today, with the advent of computers and software, whole legions of words can be wiped out in an instant. And they never complain. They go back into the box, which we call the brain, knowing that on another day, in a different context, their services will be required. They have the same motto as generations of British sailors: “Ready aye Ready.”

To me, words are like friends and colleagues deserving of care rather than neglect; willing to be of use but not deserving of abuse. Consequently, with much practice, I have learned not to take them out of the box unless I can promise them a good chance of survival. Once born, their uniqueness and their value as vehicles of communication, must, it seems to me, be accorded a certain measure of respect.

In that regard, the most disrespectful, and hence much quoted character, is Humpty Dumpty who, on watching an argument between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, said: ‘There’s glory for you!’ ‘

I don’t know what you mean by “glory” Alice said.’ ‘

I meant, “there’s a nice knocked-down argument for you!”

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knocked-down argument” ‘Alice objected.’ 

‘When I use a word, ‘Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more or less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, (Macmillan, London, 1871)

On the other hand, some words, pinching, for example do create their own problems of understanding because they wear more than one hat depending on the circumstances which must create considerable difficulties for people whose mother-tongue is not English. For example, and I am going to be playful here, it is one thing to be “Pinched by the Police” and another to be “Pinched by the Predators” The former occurs in places like England when a felon gets captured or arrested for pinching other people’s things i.e. stealing; the latter apparently occurs mainly in Rome where men pinch the bottoms of attractive female tourists. The Scots, for reasons best known to themselves, would seem to prefer to pinch pennies.

Pinching” also reminded me of an occasion, on the Ottawa River, when novices James and I were doing our best to race against some of the super sailors in our Club. Among the members are some excellent husband and wife teams, one of which overhauled us at a rapid rate one evening, with the couple close together and their rear ends well over the side of the dinghy, often referred to as the “hiking-out” position. And you will not find that referenced in some of the manuals which deal with the various positions that couples can get themselves into.

As they sailed past us I heard the wife say to the husband, “you’re pinching dear”. I was so shocked at the idea of a little hanky-panky during a race that I momentarily forgot what I was doing, and we nearly capsized! Afterwards I asked her for an explanation. “Oh”, she said nicely. “I was telling him that he was sailing too close to the wind,” which, in a different context was precisely what I had earlier thought he was doing. But, obviously, what she meant and what I had been thinking, were not the same thing.

On the other hand, both interpretations can lead to the same result, i.e., that in different ways, and I’m stretching the language here, you finish up “in irons” which is what happens to a sail-boat when she is directly facing into the wind because she cannot then move. And you, dear reader, are forgiven if you think that the writer of this piece now deserves the same fate.

Lastly, here are some of Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on words from an essay he wrote entitled “The Mystery of Love” in which he comments on the words of the German author, Thomas Mann:

The right word, le mot juste, [Mann] had recognized, can wound, can even kill. Yet the duty of the writer must be to observe and name accurately, wounding, even possibly killing. For what the writer must name in describing are inevitably imperfections. Perfection in life does not exist; and if it did, it would be ~ not loveable but admirable, possible even a bore. All the Buddhas they say are perfect, perfect and therefore alike. Having gained release from the imperfections of this world, they have left it never to return. But the Bodhisattvas  remaining, regard the lives and deeds of this imperfect world with eyes and tears of compassion. For let us note well (and here is the high point of Mann’s thinking on this subject) what is loveable about any human being is precisely his imperfections. The writer is to find the right words for these and to send them like arrows to their mark ~ but with a balm, the balm of love, on every point. For the mark, the imperfection, is exactly what is personal, human, natural in the object, and the umbilical point of its life.