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?

Words

“[Words] do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together.”
Virginia Woolf

Sometimes words march through my mind like soldier ants on a mission, orderly and controlled. At other times, they swirl violently in the currents and high winds of emotion. Occasionally, they drift like clouds, beautiful and beyond reach.

I’ve spent countless hours in archives reading the words of people long dead. I’ve held the centuries-old parchment that a mother touched long ago, placing quill on paper to share the grief she felt over the death of her child. Her words conveyed anguish still so palpable that my eyes filled with tears as I read. I’ve read court records–the dry, official language that nevertheless reveals details of spousal abuse and sexual transgressions. From both the heartfelt words of love and grief and the cold words of law and bureaucracy, we uncover the buried lives of others and unearth truths about the past.

We use words to express love: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” We use words to create images: “The fog comes on little cat feet.” We use words to proclaim liberty and freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “We the people.”
But sometimes words are too much. “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady. “Show me!’ she demands of her would-be suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill

There are times when we want don’t want words, we want action, whether it is fighting, loving, or marching. We want someone to do something. “Don’t just stand there. Help them! Help me!” We need a hug, a kiss, a caress, or a human touch.
Sometimes words are inadequate. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” We cannot make a broken heart whole again. I cannot heal your heart, as much as I want to. But we—but I– put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard because that’s all we can do.