The power of words

I’ve always had a weakness for words. When I was a kid and my mother told me to ‘look it up’ rather than providing me with the definition I knew she knew, I was only annoyed for show. Indeed, I often lugged around an unabridged dictionary under one arm, waiting, eager even, for the next word I heard or read and didn’t understand. I’m an idiot for idioms, have a passion for colloquialisms, adore word play and am ever-curious about the origins of expressions. A row of books in the reference section of my library is devoted to books with titles like When A Loose Cannon Flogs A Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay. Those who know me well know I create my own. I do not put on shoes, I put on hooves.

I love alliteration, delight in homonym multiples, relish spelunking for etymological roots, think in iambs and bask in the glow of a well-turned phrase, no matter the author or the vessel, be it in a newsletter or The New York Times, Shakespeare or Sadie Smith. I don’t listen to music, I listen to books. The song in my heart has lyrics.

I argue with TV and radio commentators who don’t speak the Queen’s English, who don’t know the difference between rout and route or between less and fewer. It irks me that these high profile representatives of the press get it wrong. Because they are, or ought to be, the standard bearers of proper usage. It’s a losing battle but battle on I must, even while falling on my knees in praise before a good malaprop. Or a headline or public sign that is inventive with puns. Like the dog grooming business Laundro-Mutt or the construction company, Oedipus Wrecks. Like the golf headline “Tiger Puts Balls In Wrong Place Again” or this from the L.A. Times, “Big rig carrying fruit crashes on freeway, creating jam.”

I am a wordsmith. Words are lifeblood to me. Written or spoken. They are the magnificent and magical offspring of language, the crucible of understanding, the foundation of knowledge. Without knowledge, we spin in a chaotic world. Words are my anchor to reality, my most cherished source of amusement, the links in the fence that give order to my world.

So, when I read the blog post of a young friend in trouble, I was brought up short. She mused about the power of words in a way I’d not carefully considered before: how a word is a word is a word until it applies directly to you in a deeply personal way. Think: Rape. Or: Missing in Action. Or: Cancer. And how one’s world and one’s sense of self can be turned on its ear when a vocabulary word suddenly becomes about me.

Here’s what she wrote:

We know lots of words. Words have a lot of meaning and a lot of purpose. Some words are part of our daily life and some simply are not. We are constantly learning new words and expanding our knowledge. New words are everywhere. You probably learned a new one today. But until that word has value to you, it’s just a word. It’s funny how one day a word, like… oh, let’s say…LEUKEMIA, can just be a word and the next minute it has lots of value. Then you find yourself with other words that suddenly have lots of meaning… chemotherapy, infusions, transfusions, blood, biopsies, platelets, cells, vitals, hemoglobin, etc…

Never under estimate the power of a word.

A latter post built on the earlier one:

I’ve decided that I’m going to describe my days as “cruddy”, “better” or “good”. Saving the words “bad” and “great” for the days that truly deserve them. I simply have not had a bad day yet. Cruddy yes. Bad no. Things could be a lot worse, and they are not. A great day would be a day with no side effects from anything (chemo, a medication, low immune system, etc…) A great day would mean my numbers were at or near normal and the sign of discharge would be in the future. So I’m saving the word “great” (and many more wonderful words) for such a day that deserves them.

Whoa! Never under estimate the power of a word, is right. It took my young friend to make me rethink my love affair with words. They can hurt, terrorize, shake one’s foundation. No matter that even these hard words are the building blocks of information and information is, to my way of thinking, the powerbroker of knowledge.  But who would wish this kind of knowledge on anyone? Her words do not make me smile. They do not amuse. They are not the lyrics to any song I want to hum.

I remember being made to write my vocabulary words 100 times each as punishment. I remember the rote memorization of endless school lessons from Hiawatha to the Pledge of Allegiance before I was old enough to grasp the concept of what any of the words actually meant. Just as I recall the days when one or another Big Word — Driver, Byline,  Husband, come to mind —  leapt free of a dictionary existence and owned me to the core. Just as I now will never forget when LEUKEMIA leapt off the page and took on life, in every sense of the word. That was a cruddy day.

— Belle Songer



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