I was not quite eighteen years old when my senior class visited a university English lecture. During my four years in high school I had become enamored with the artistry of words through the influence of my teacher, Father Shane. He had introduced me and my classmates to the magnificent world of literature and poetry. With his guidance I viewed the human experience in the brilliance of words strung together by gifted writers. I began to realize the nuance of a single phrase, the Picasso-like abstraction of language that only geniuses know how to create. I was enamored with the power of words to tell stories and awaken feelings. Then I listened to the professor lecturing my group of soon to be college students on the brilliance of The Great Gatsby and my love affair with language reached a fever pitch.
I spent my time at the University of Houston studying the way we humans express ourselves with words. I analyzed our parts of speech in minute detail and learned about the almost mathematical precision of our linguistic structures. I studied literature from folksy oral traditions to Nobel prize winning authors. I began to realize the delicate importance of how language is used. I saw that word choice is akin to the blending of colors on a canvas. The same sentence heard or read by hundreds of people will be interpreted in countless ways from the literal to the highly imaginative and figurative. I found the power of verbal expression to be intoxicating, but I also understood that its misinterpretations might bring devastating wrath down on the speaker or the writer. J. Alfred Prufrock’s proclamation, “That is not what I meant at all.” was a reminder to me that how we use our words can make or break our efforts to communicate our thoughts and beliefs to others.
Hills Like White Elephants by Earnest Hemingway is a short story that uses the most carefully chosen words to concisely and powerfully convey a multitude of thoughts and emotions. The title itself is a masterpiece. Those four words convey the gist of the story before it is even told. Even without careful analysis the encounter of the protagonists is interesting. With a deep dive into each phrase and sentence a word picture emerges that is more visually stunning than a movie.
Sadly, we are presently ensconced in a time when a kind of puritanical or Cromwellian attitude towards art, and particularly the way we communicate, is sweeping across the land. People are interpreting words at their most literal level and in the process often missing their nuanced meanings, or even worse indicting them with imagined beliefs. I suppose that this trend points to the importance of clarification and the need to consider time and place when choosing a word to describe something specific.
When we talk about the need to overhaul our criminal justice system talking of “defunding police” may have a very benign meaning for the inventor of that phrase, but may sound like totally eliminating our police forces to others. In such instances it is a disservice to the cause to use such an easily misunderstood word choice. Since a discussion of how to better serve the citizenry with regard to policing is critical to our justice system, clarity is demanded. Vague and easily misleading words should not become the catch phrases for the cause. They only lead to confusion and the potential for those opposed to any changes in the way we do things to strike false fears into the hearts of persons who do not take the time to learn how that phrase originated and what its exact meaning is.
Our words are often heard or read in ways that we never intended. I know that each time I write a blog there will be many different reactions to my words. People tend to skim the surface in their hurry to get to the next thing that they must do each day. They see and hear things in tiny bites. They are always influenced by their own personal experiences and environments. Speakers and authors must take such realities into account.
Words are powerful they can hurt or heal. They can be twisted to mean something never intended. Once they are free in the universe it is difficult to take them back. Jesus warned us that our words are like setting a bag of feathers loose into the air. Some will see them as a lovely things. Others will be reviled by the mess they have made. Never can we completely reclaim them or try a different way of expressing ourselves as an explanation.
These days we hear lots of catchy phrases that attempt to encapsulate entire belief systems. They may be powerful in appealing to a lack of imagination, but they do little to clarify the kinds of thinking and solutions that we should be seeking. I would contend that words matter and we need the best examples of them to progress as humans. Each of us needs to learn how to take the time to parse meanings and search for truth either when we are setting forth words or when we are attempting to define their meanings. There are no shortcuts to understanding. It’s time for each of us to slow down and become more serious in our analysis and presentation of words. There is too much at stake to allow silly hats and memes to be our guides.