the secret life of words writ large

Arabic tile with calligraphy depicting the names of God, Muhammad and the first caliphs. Istanbul, Turkey, c. 1727

I wrote this in 2008; some references may feel outdated.

As someone who has for millennia danced with words, I frequently face a thorny conundrum — BTW, one of the greatest words ever, yes? 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 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 Mother of God become Mother F*#K%*? How did “Holy of Holies” morph into “Holy Crap?” What is 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, to feel? 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. The list goes on and on…

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. Imagine having innumerable brothers and sisters, yet people steadfastly refuse to acknowledge your inherent uniqueness. Your self-esteem would plummet! Imagine the cognitive dissonance and trauma suffered by humble words like cup, green, 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 and heart 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, an eternally horrific 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 the 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 uncomfortable or overly confining forms, the more elusive they become. Speak to them kindly, await their arrival with great anticipation and patience, and always, always be willing to let them go no matter how much you adore them. 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.

Feeling isolated, disconnected, uninspired, or just plain chatty? I love receiving and replying to your Comments and Questions. Human engagement is truly a great invention…

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