Finding My Words

Monday Morning Musings:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

–T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (lines 118-119)

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

–Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

I’m at a loss for them today, so I decided to write about words. Unlike Eliza Doolittle in the musical, My Fair Lady, who sings:

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!”

–“Show Me” From My Fair Lady, Lerner and Lowe

I am never sick of words. I love words. I didn’t know—or more likely did not remember—that it was Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who first explained that a portmanteau word was like the suitcase called a portmanteau: “Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.” (You can read more about it here.)

One of my favorite Carroll portmanteaus is “chortle,” a word that has entered everyday vocabulary. I love it because it sounds exactly like what it is, and it makes me laugh to even hear the word in my head. You can find some new portmanteaus here. I think “Internest” is a great word because I’ve seen my daughter do it. It means “the cocoon of blankets and pillows you gather around yourself whilst spending long periods of time on the Internet.” Another favorite is “epiphanot”: “ an idea that seems like an amazing insight to the conceiver but is in fact pointless, mundane, stupid, or incorrect.” I’m not judging anyone here. I think I’ve had plenty of epiphanots myself—although I do picture Cliff Clavin from the old TV series, Cheers, when I hear the word.

This weekend my husband and I saw two very different movies—hey, it was movie catch-up weekend—Far From the Madding Crowd and Ex Machina.

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdeen (isn’t that a great name?) says in a line from Hardy’s novel: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It seems to me that it is not so much the language of the time, as it was the moral constraints imposed on women that prevented them from speaking. Bathsheba could not talk of sexual passion and desire. But the men, too, talked around it. They discussed marriage in economic terms, not in words of love. Much cannot be said, and perhaps was not even thought. Perhaps then there were no words to describe what they felt. Actions, however, have consequences in this story. Women who give in to desire are punished with death or debts. Women who use words thoughtlessly—as in sending a Valentine’s card—must also pay a price. The movie is beautiful—you will want to move to Dorset, England. The acting is wonderful, too. (I found this short article that discusses the movie and book, if you want more information.)

In Ex Machina language becomes not so much a means of defining or limiting gender, but rather, it becomes a method testing what it means to be fully alive. Reclusive billionaire and definite alpha male Nathan Bateman (a bulked-up Oscar Isaac) brings nerdy but cute programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason) to his estate to Turing-test his A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander). We all know that computers can use words and can be programmed to talk and write, but can they do more? The movie is exciting and thought provoking in its exploration of what it means to be human. Does an A.I. have feelings? Can an A.I. pretend? Can it feel pleasure or desire? And would a human know?

Humans seem to be hardwired to use words and form languages. We like to name things. It would be an epiphanot to say that languages evolve over time. (See what I did there?) I think most people know that whatever language we speak is different from that same language spoken centuries ago. Cultural and technological changes and inventions fuel the desire to create new words.

The creativity of novelists, poets, and other artists has also led to the invention of new words. Who can forget the scary terms coined by George Orwell in 1984? Orwell deliberately invented new words, such as thoughtcrime, newspeak, and of course, doublethink. He wrote, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” English author and former spy, John Le Carré has also created words, such as mole, meaning someone who infiltrates an organization. You can find some others here. Words can bring goodness and light; they can incite evil, too. They can be used to deliberately obfuscate, or to enlighten.

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom House”

Words. I was at a loss, but now I seem to have used 939 of them. I’ve finished the job, but I don’t think it’s complete. What is a word for that?

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18 thoughts on “Finding My Words

  1. As always, I am getting my Monday cultural education from your post. Thanks for all the links, especially to Far from the Madding Crowd, which I want to see ASAP. Hardy is one of my favorite novelists, and I enjoyed reading Tess of the D’Urbeville and teaching Return of the Native.

    As for portmanteau words: unkeyboardinated is my favorite, as I often shoot off emails and comments on posts with serous typoes or crazie punktuation.

    Another quote to add here: The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James (I think that may apply to words too.)

    You said” I’ve finished the job, but I don’t think it’s complete.” And asked: “What is a word for that?” I say: Don’t worry! Too many words is verbiage, a word I like to say because it rhymes with garbage (well, sort of).

    Great Monday mind massage, Merril.

    • Thanks so much, Marian. You are always my ego booster! I love unkeyboardinated. I’m actually pretty keyboardinated though. 🙂 You will enjoy Far From the Madding Crowd.

    • Thanks, Craig. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Epiphanot is a great word. I think you and Lisa will enjoy the movie, but you might have some questions for her afterwards. 🙂

  2. ‘I think most people know that whatever language we speak is different from that same language spoken centuries ago.’ In truth I think it’s very different from that we spoke one year ago.So many new words are entering the dictionaries to do with texting, computers and the like yet I was reading a blog last week that lamented the loss in the OED of words like dandelion or snowdrop or whatever. What do we say to children who point these things out in future but can’t turn to a dictionary for a definition? Maybe in a few years time they’ll be credited with the creation of a new word that they actually learned at out knees.
    Language is wonderful in the right hands and redundant in the hands of others.
    xxx Lovely post. Huge Hugs xxx

    • Thanks so much for your comment, David. I imagine that globalization and the fact that we can communicate with others all over the world so quickly (as we’re doing here) must also play a part. Then again, in past centuries when people were more isolated and language was not standardized at all, there were all sorts of local and regional words that were used that have now been lost. Hugs back to you!

  3. Interesting take on words, and great way to incorporate movie reviews. … well, absolutely brilliant. I’m not a vocabulary sleuth or wordsmith, but I did see several words in this post that are new to me … portmanteau, obfuscate, epiphanot, slithy, and maybe others. … so I know they’ve never appeared on my blog. On the other hand, I once wrote about words … https://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/on-palaver/ …. Thus a chance for you to incorporate some new words appearing on my blog. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for the praise, Frank! I guess you don’t know “Jabberwocky” or you would know “slithy.” That poem is filled with made up words. I’m glad you learned some new words. I will look at your post now. 🙂

  4. Last week a colleague wished us a “phantasmagoric” weekend. I’m not sure how many words went together to make up that one, but I love it. And, I think my weekend ended up being rather phantasmagoric.

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