I am often astounded at the power of language – the spoken and written word. I know the saying goes, “One picture is worth a thousand words.” That may well be true, but pictures seldom harm or heal in quite the same way that words, and the sounds of words, can and do Language is a medium of sight, sound, feeling, taste and smell. It is an expression that is far more than just shimmering waves and frequencies, or the black squiggles on paper, that it perhaps appears to be.
I remember listening to Joni Mitchell‘s eponymous first album, over forty years ago. It was the first album I had ever listened to that was built around one theme, and essentially told one story as it progressed through the tracks. I still love that recording, and I purchased it when it really was an album…vinyl, and with a jacket and everything! (Makes me feel old if and when I have to explain that!). In her album notes there is a dedication to her father, as the one “who taught me to love words.” It was the same for me growing up. My Dad was a stickler for the English language. He loved it and (most of) the words that are in its makeup. I was NEVER allowed to use profanity or obscenity (not even a “heck” or a “darn!”) as a child (can’t say I have stuck to that rule as an adult, however!). The prohibition was not so much because of decorum, politeness, or being virtuous. To Daddy, swearing exhibited “a lack of vocabulary.” He felt there are a lot more legitimate words in the English language that are far more expressive than the four-letter words so many people use to express their frustrations and anger. I will say however, that “shit” is probably one of the most descriptive words in our language, and highly appropriate at certain times – especially when used sparingly! (Pardon me, Daddy! I hope, now that you have rolled over, you are more comfortable!)
I and my brothers were forever being told to “go and look it up,” when we heard a word we didn’t know, and then encouraged to use the new-found word in at least three different sentences during the rest of the day, so that the word would take root and become a part of our daily vocabulary. I remember, in all seriousness, complaining to Daddy about this requirement: “But Dad! Won’t you PLEASE just tell me what the word means?!? If I have to go to the dictionary and look up the meaning of the word ‘pasta,’ it will tell me to see ‘macaroni,’ and if I look up ‘macaroni,’ it will say, ‘see pasta!'” (I think I actually used those words for the example, too!…I couldn’t have been all that serious!) Or I would say something like, “How can I look up how to spell it if I don’t know how to spell it?”
Sometimes it seemed like my Dad should have the motto: “Never use a ‘nickel word’ when a ‘five-dollar word’ will say it more precisely!” (Well, it might be more precise, but it often makes one less understood – without Mssrs. Merriam and Webster, of course!) But despite all my eye-rolling and groans, I knew that he was right. Learning how to express yourself well is important. Proper and elegant language illuminates your thinking and can clarify for yourself and others what you are trying to convey. Yes, my Daddy taught me to love words, and one of my fondest memories is sitting in his lap as a very young girl and kibitzing with him on the New York Times crossword puzzle. He solved them every day, and I have continued that wonderful pastime.
Words and language can be such wonderful and powerful things! One of my most beautiful “butterfly memories” is about a conversation I had with my (then) 4-year-old nephew, Christopher. My mother had a table in her home office upon which she displayed several sea shells she had collected over the years. I was spending some time with Chris one afternoon when he and his family were visiting. He was and still is a remarkably intelligent and insightful young man, now of almost 40 years. I was telling him that if he held the seashell up to his ear and listened, he could hear the ocean – the sound of the waves coming ashore. He gently picked up the shell and placed it against his ear, as I had shown him. His eyes lit up in a way that brought tears to my own. But, being the sort of person I am, I decided to do some “wise-cracking” – the type of humor I thought might appeal to a 4-year old: “Say, Chris! Why do you suppose you can hear the ocean from inside that shell? Does it have a tiny telephone or a little-bitty radio inside there, sending the sea-song to your ear?” Instead of giggling, he took on a very thoughtful expression, hesitated a moment, and then said, “No, Aunt Paula, I think the shell has a ‘special remembering thing’ inside it. And that way, no matter where it is, it carries the ocean with it.” I can still taste the sweetness of that moment, and can bring to my mind, at will, the fragrance it left in the air. I was humbled by the thoughtfulness and wisdom of this child, and the way his words conveyed a picture and a feeling in a way no other medium could accomplish.
Words can also cause great pain. Most of us have heard the old schoolyard rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” In my experience, one could hardly get further from the truth. I can think of no person who has escaped unscathed the injuries inflicted by name-calling. Consider how the use of the spoken and written word has shaped our own families, races, nations, and creeds – surely there is no one who has not felt the stings and arrows of outrageous abuse of words against one another (Sorry WS!). All language – written, verbal, non-verbal, and/or pictorial – has the power to hurt and the power to heal. We all need to consider a bit more carefully sometimes what we are about to say or write. I have unfortunately become a conaisseuse of shoe leather – especially my own. I endeavor each day to put my mind into gear before putting my mouth into motion, but being the impulsive and rash being that I sometimes am, my language frequently gets me into all sorts of humbling situations, and has led me to partake in a large number of shoe meals and crow feasts. It seems that my eagerness to speak correctly has often led me to speak unkindly. Something I am only just beginning to learn (though I’m sure my Dad tried to teach me) is the fine line that separates the right word from the correct word, and the difference between a bon mot and the appropriate word. While my humor can often “leave ’em laughing,” it also can hurt – regardless of my intentions. I am learning to choose more wisely.
This post ends with two of my favorite quotations about language and words:
Proverbs 18:21 – “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 25:11 – “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
Yeah, Solomon was on to something there. So I’ll close now, going in search of some golden apples, wishing you all
Addendum – August 3, 2010: The title of this post is in reference to not only the proverb, but a partial quote from a poem by William Butler Yeats, and it is one of my favorites: You can read it at the following link:http://www.poetry-archive.com/y/the_song_of_wandering_aengus.html
And speaking of choosing wisely…here’s a giggle for you!