Once there were Words

Words have always been a great solace to me. I am moved by sentences like Anthony Doerr’s Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Just the phrase “sounds ribbon in shoals” is a thrill to me. Even a single word – P.K. Page’s choice of the word catafalque in her phrase the tall eventual catafalque— brings me delight.

Between words and silence, there is nonsense. Like most families, we had our own language which contained baby talk or verbal blunders that stuck simply because we liked the sound. Eedie go me, a small child’s instruction that her babysitter should not attempt to change her diapers, expressed a desire to be set free. Geeba, the ubiquitous cry we seemed to hear at the dog park, perhaps related to the many dogs named Sheba, became our word for foolish people. A childhood friend of mine came up with the evocative words wallenand smeedmut to describe her moods of melancholy and frustration, terms I still use. I can’t remember the source for our word mimpering, but it seemed a good description for a particular kind of idle meandering. Often we would mimper away an entire afternoon. Nonsense has its place.

Sometimes there are no words to capture our feelings and we fall silent: Silence is deep as Eternity, Thomas Carlyle said, speech is shallow as Time. Silence is the other side of a love of language, and too can speak to us.

Illiteracy is another matter. A local business uses its road sign to display jokes that are often clever if not profound. Recently it featured this riddle: How do you get two whales in a car? Start in England and drive west.Of course you have to be able to read in order to get the joke, and many won’t, as illiteracy is on the rise. It helps if you read it out loud.

Nowadays, videos have replaced written instructions. Pictures have replaced words. The world leader most frequently in the news these days is often nonverbal: he avoids verbs in favour of one-word verdicts: sad, bad, lies.

We speak in hyperbole of awesome restaurants, amazing journeys. Slushy, feel-good words and  phrases like “It’s a journey” and “I want to honour your experience” replace precise language. Order a cappuccino and your server will say, “Awesome!” Words, if they are used at all, are tossed about with little regard for their meaning.

Nowadays, words fail us. Or we fail them. Now we communicate through emoticons, acronyms, numerals and verbal grunts. We can only wonder about where this rough beast that is, now, slouching towards us will take us.

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