Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eating Your Words: A Guide

"I hate definitions"
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Benjamin Disraeli was, among other things, the Prime Minister of England for a number of years under the rule of Queen Victoria. Everything I've read about him has been in relation to her, which obviously colored my judgement both for and against his favor.

There are quotes attributed to Disraeli that have left me with my mouth hanging open (not in a good way). Sometimes we can agree that a person spoke from the knowledge/ignorance of their time period. We can't judge the past by the rules of the present, can we? Usually, no. However, there are some things that cannot be excused.

Though I do love myself some British history, and particularly enjoy the royal family, I don't pretend that it is all dresses and scones. Oh, that it could be.

Between Disraeli and Queen Victoria (and many, many others) there was a great deal of wickedness and sorrow that came to the people of the British Isles and even the world. There was much good, yes, and I tend to remember those things that were exemplary and interesting. But I have friends who descend from those affected by faulty governing, and for their sake I cannot forget that there was good and bad.

It is perhaps because of this that I find Disraeli's comment so interesting. Politicians by their nature have to define things and people and situations and classes. There is no way to govern at all if there are no definitions of who or what to govern!

Another reason I found this quote to be almost funny is that Benjamin Disraeli was also an author! As a Very Distinguished Writer myself, I found his distaste of definitions to be a bit contrary.

I love words. I love what they represent, I love how they look on paper and how they feel in your mouth. When I find a word I like, I let it roll around in my mouth, melting and softening on my tongue like chocolate.

I recently saw a post on Facebook by my friend Daniel Bell. He posted a question about what one's grasp of grammar and language said about a person. There were of course the token 'har-de-har-har' type comments in which dull-witted people tried to poke fun at their ignorance:

"Imma redneck and muh daddy was a redneck and we don't need no fancy schooling."

So funny. Wallow in idiocy and watch it crust underneath your nails.

I can take a joke, and I know that some people were indeed being jocular. However, there was an overall lack of respect or understanding in most people's posts.

My zealous love of words bubbled forth, and I posted a few short sentences about the importance of words, language, and even grammar. I then said that I would write a blog to give my whole answer.

I answer in response to Daniel's post as well as Disraeli's quote.

Why are words important? Does the mastery, or at least respect of words indicate any sort of superior intellect? For that matter, what is a word?

Defining the word, 'word' is a bit obtuse. My husband once bragged that he had been able to provide the definition of the word 'is' in a school setting, earning him awkward looks and apparently bragging rights for the rest of his intellectually stimulating life.

I'm not great with definitions. I find the process of explaining an idea in as concise a manner as possible almost distasteful. Why should we insult words by limiting them? But then, at some point, we have to delve into the ideas that words represent and not just the chocolaty words themselves.

If you come from a Christian background, you've no doubt heard the verse that says 'In the beginning was the Word.'

Aside from spiritual context, this is a mind-altering statement. You don't have to ascribe to the religious life to see the importance.

A word is a way to define. To define something, you use words. Thus, the ever present cyclical nature of all true complexities. But don't get hung up. Jump off the hamster wheel and just go down one avenue for today.

Without words, without definitions, we have no way to experience, express, categorize, understand, share, or create. Words are the building block of every.single.thing.

The easiest way to use words, arguably, is through speaking. People that can neither hear nor talk have a harder time communicating their mastery of a word. But it is still there.  A word represents a concept. Even concrete, physical items are conceptualized. I hear the word 'cake' and think of cake. I create one in my mind, and the cake isn't real. I can make the cake (not really, as I always dream of wedding cakes the size of my car) and bring the concept into my reality. But I'm still working from an idea that we have labeled with the word, cake.

For a majority of words, we agree upon a general idea. We can all say with great faith in humanity and karma that the word 'cake' means a baked good that usually contains flour, sugar, eggs, and is topped with decadent pumpkin buttercream or something else that makes life worth living. We also know without saying that a cake might be flourless or sugarless or deviate in some way from the generalized concept. But, we know with just as much faith that 'cake' is not the same as 'car' or 'fireplace'. The agreed deviance does not deviate so far as to allow a complete alternate definition.

If we know that a word defines and gives life to an idea, and that we agree on these ideas for the purpose of communication, we can then talk about why this matters.

Without communication, without the ability to express ideas that define our world both inside and out, we are completely alone. If I cannot use words to ask for water, I will go thirsty. When words are not physically spoken, we still communicate the ideas of those words, which transcends all languages.

If you wake up in a foreign country in which you know nothing of the people or language, you will be able to communicate your need for water, food, a place to pee, and a place to rest. You will be limited in your ability to wax eloquent on who Kafka was and how you feel about Shrek on Broadway. But your needs can be known and addressed, all because of the power of words. You might not say 'water', but you will be thinking of the word as you mime drinking from a glass or from a stream. Your friend will see the mime, understand the concept, and think of the word 'water' in his language that you do not know. You will communicate.

With this being miraculous, it still isn't enough for a satisfying life. We may have water, but we need so much more to really survive. Who would want to live in a world where poetry wasn't celebrated? What civilization is worth surviving if it merits not the beauty of the written and spoken word?

Words are the way to understand who we are and what we do. But words are also our playthings, our brightly colored paints and swelling scores. When we define and create anew the ideas that we encounter, we enter a world that is altogether miraculous.

Benjamin Disraeli was probably exhausted and discouraged when he spoke of definitions. As a politician, he was probably becoming hemmed in by all sides' uses of definitions. I am not the prime minister, which is a shame. I should dearly love to sit in Parliament and listen to the lovely accents all day and be remembered with the likes of Winston Churchill. However, I can echo Disraeli's sentiment when applied against the overuse or perhaps misuse or words.

Think of it in terms of American politics. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Some people are happy to report they are one or the other. However, there is a growing populous that disdains the definition of either. The ideas the define the difference between those parties have become more complex, personal, and difficult to uphold. It isn't enough to want a certain type of government. You also have to agree with the party or candidate's lifestyle, choice of dress, and favorite breed of dog. If you cannot adhere to these definitions, you should look elsewhere.

Are you Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Agnostic? It isn't just the deity you put your faith in, but now includes what kind of car you drive, how you vote (which makes the previous paragraph more complicated) and what school your children should attend.

Are you male, female, questioning, undecided or undeclared? The ideas to define what makes a man or a woman have become so vague that we might end up with one gender or many or perhaps none at all.

Sometimes, as Disraeli felt one day when he could satisfy neither wife nor queen nor average tavern-loving citizen, we just need an escape from the definitions. We don't have to describe and label all aspects of life all the time. Sometimes, a man is just a man...whatever that means to him or you or me.

When such times occur, we rest easy in the words of the poets.  They define our ideas outside of knowledge, in the magic realm of feeling that cannot be described, but experienced.

"Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion." 
William Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing


Flo Paris said...

Wonderful post.
I once wrote an email to a musical hero of mine and the response I got surprised me.

He wrote that one of the main reasons he responded was because my email was actually well written.

Not flowery or poetic or anything, but it made sense, there were actual paragraphs, etc.

How sad!
I am constantly disappointed by emails I receive or blogs people write that make it seem like the world must not care about language, words or grammar AT all.

When I write a song, I'll sometimes spend HOURS mining for words, until I find just the right one.

ps-Have you heard of this book? It has been suggested by SO many friends but I haven't read it yet:

Beatrice Blount said...

We are all guilty of hastily sent texts that say something awful, like 'r u coming 2nite?", it is important to note that real communication, particularly that which represents who we are, should be beautiful.

Sometimes this means simplicity: Thank you so much for the gift, I've always wanted a Ron Weasley Lego keychain! Alohamora!

Sometimes we use big words, meaty words, pretty words and penmanship that makes grandmothers weep.

Either way, it should be the best for the situation, and adhere as much as possible to the agreed upon parameters of grammar as set forth by The Gods of Language.

No, I haven't heard of that book but will take a look!

Pastor Austin said...

I find it fascinating how often the pendulum swings between ignorance and knowledge in human culture. No one grows up thinking, "I wish I could get back to when they didn't know______." Yet there also seems to be a trend in parts of human history to disdain high culture and lofty language. In the end, words are only as good as the ideas they are presenting, and you present good ideas well. Thanks for the thoughts Beatrice!

Anonymous said...

Like Smitty, you always know just what to say!

Anastasia Beaverhausen

Beatrice Blount said...

Wowza. Big props, Anastasia. You know how to make a girl giggle.

Jan Buck said...

Did you see the cartoon in the paper this morning about the teacher having to rewrite her directions in texting talk? Sad but true,