Monday, November 16, 2009

On words

'Words in action, with ice cream. Two friends in Mumbai (Bombay), India.' An image of two little girls, talking to each other on the kerb of a road.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Regular visitors know that I love words, especially less usual ones, such as words which vary over time, in either spelling or meaning.

I also, however, recognize that words are not the be all and end all, despite the intellectual traditional I stem from. Today, a little stroll to illustrate these thoughts. A stroll amidst words.

Just as fried eggs can be served sunny side up or sunny side down I like the fact that we can lie prone, face down, or supine, face up--and I aim to ensure that we don't only use those words while getting a massage or performing an autopsy.

(Aside: I have great autopsy stories from when I was kid--which might explain a lot... Also, for those interested, there are many, many other ways that fried eggs can be served if you come from an exacting, exhaustive culinary tradition--like the French do... maybe another post, one day.)

Andrew Marvell's poem "The Character of Holland", which I reproduced last Friday, was written in the seventeenth century and is a veritable cornucopia of lovely words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and more!), most with archaic spellings.

Ambergreece, for example, and from the poem, is an archaic spelling of ambergris.

Ambergris, of course, is frightfully expensive; it's whale vomit that has floated on the ocean's surface for a few years to age and rot a bit; ambergris has no value when it is a fresh, floating slick.

Sailors lucky enough to find and collect ambergris can retire happy; they'll be richly scented with eau de cash.

Ambergris, as you know, is used as a binding, fragrant base note for the finest perfumes.

It's a perfect Taoist substance, really; ambergris is something vile and earthly (metaphorically, as physically it comes from a water bound leviathan) through which ethereal beauty is contained, transmuted, and then sprung free.

Anyway, as we know, I groove on words.

The mental pitter patter of words and meanings, dancing their tarantellas on my consciousness when I read or hear or write or speak, provides a syncopated rhythm of denoted and connoted meanings yielding a rich patina of both definitional meanings and allusional, contextual meanings.

Sometimes I find the joy and verve of words, themselves, alone, so great that I belt out extemporaneous songs, to my wife's varying amusement or chagrin, subject and location depending.

I like to think that we are all like this; I simply lack the ability to behave with propriety, sometimes.

And, I hold that intellectually, culturally, and traditionally, most of my readers come from a background which asserts the primacy of words.

In the Christian tradition we read in John 1:1 that:
εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος
The key word here is λογος which would be translated into the Latin Vulgate bible as verbum, or word.
in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum
The English translation of this phrase, from the Modern King James version, is:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
The idea of "word", as opposed to "reason", representing both God and his Son, through the Christian revelatory experience, is fascinating in itself as a word choice in translation and comes, I think, from the Gnostic background of St. John the Evangelist, but this, somehow, became lost by the time of the Enlightenment.

Still, the primacy of the word itself, in the European academic and cultural tradition, had been set, especially in the Middle Ages when illiteracy was the encompassing norm.

The Moslem tradition includes the Christian tradition by virtue of the succession of prophets, and their texts, whilst none of my Hindu or Buddhist friends are slouchs when it comes to words.

Words, quite simply, are not the prerogatives of either the West or of Christianity.

Words, as vehicles for sharing meaning, have long been seen as important for all peoples; words are the basis of communication.

But, sometimes, I get given grief for my love of hefty or allegedly obsolete words.

Some folks think that I contribute to a loss of meaning by using 'non-standard' words.

I hear the point, but know that you, Gentle Reader, have an excellent vocabulary as well as access to a good dictionary, as I do, too.

And, I instantly apprehend and comprehend that words are not the be all and end all, despite John the Evangelist's first words, quoted above. John the Evangelist, after all, didn't stop at John 1:1; he had much more to say.

Further, sometimes, words are simply not to be relied on.

A case in point:

...and here is the paper which bears his name upon it, as well as mine.

This quote, you may recall, comes from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 30 September 1938, at Heston Aerodrome (outside of London, England) on his return from his meeting with Fuehrer and Chancellor (Reichskanzler) Herr Adolf Hitler at Munich (the signing of the Munich Agreement).

This, of course, was the agreement by which Prime Minister Chamberlain, would, later that same day, at his official residence, No. 10 Downing Street, declare to have secured, for Britain, "...peace with honour... ...peace in our time." ...and the year, once again, was 1938...

So, I recognize that sometimes words, or, more accurately, the meanings of words, cannot be trusted.

But, still, you gotta love them; what other choice do we have?

With that, I'll end the day here, resting up for three word Wednesday, in two days.


So, as I'm adding music these days... What song would go with today? Hmm...

Click to hear 'What I am' by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians iTunes

Or, a tarantella...


Teresa said...

I love your words, scribe, in all their glorious beauty and rhythm, complete with obscure and obsolete meanings from whatever book or tradition. Words, glorious words!! You surely aren't hearing any complaints from me on that account.

And as I am now studying discourse analysis in school, I am learning even more the power of words to create and annihilate and to construct all kinds of beautiful and horrible cultural forms. So party on Mr. Scribe with your wonderful, whacky, abstruse, contumacious words!

And the music at the end of the blog is the Schlagzahne obers on your Sacher torte of words. I loved the name "shooting rubber bands" that came up on my itunes player for the first one. And the first tarantella is exquisite in so many ways. I will find the notes and figure out the musical vocabulary (and find some other crazy friends to play it with me--maybe not as well as the professioals but surely with as much gusto as your impromptu songs).

Cloudia said...

I KNEW you were a brother extemporaneous singer!!

The Hawaiians too valued words highly. An oral culture, they saw writing as magic that they wanted to posess. By it one might know the contents of a ship at the dock before unloading. Bet even you never thought of a bill of lading as a species of magic, eh Scribe?

Kamehameha III Boasted that his was a universally literate nation, as indeed it WAS long before (19th Cent.)even "civilized" western nations, and had some of the first newspapers west of the Mississippi.

Words are talismans....

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Fireblossom said...

Hello, and a curtsy to Pommes the Wonder Cat, her highness Queen Regina, and to you, Chris. :-)

Thanks for your visit and kind comment at my Word Garden! Naturally, anyone who arrives by way of Cloudia is considered a friend from the start, especially if they have a cat who can vouch for them.

Ambergris is a fine word. It sounds like a girl's name. Meet my cousin Ambergris. Her father is in whale vomit. Not literally. She wonders if you noticed her perfume? Like, I'm so sure he cares, Amber. Sorry, she's new.

Please visit again, and I will do so as well. I'm glad you liked "Lies." I'm off to nail it to the church door.


The United Statesian said...


I wish I had a better grip of words - more eloquent. I am jealous.

The ambergris information is highly useful... Shall we hunt for it now to become rich? Is that what you were looking for when you were beached like a whale in the South China Sea? Coincidence?

The music is great, but it would be better to just have a link... multiple posts with music that starts automatically crashes my browser...bummer dood.

Felicity said...

Whoa! You're intimidatingly good at picking the perfect word to describe things.
The mental pitter patter of words and meanings, dancing their tarantellas on my consciousness is just brilliant.

Felicity said...

Also, thank you so much for stopping by at my blog. Just read your comments and replied to them and I don't know how to thank you for your wonderfully kind words - you made my day. :)

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Teresa,

Like the Finns, I am going a little pink...

I am searching, as well, for the sheet music for you. I would love to hear you play it. Maybe via skype.

Dear Cloudia,

I am, and I know you are too... many of your posts are songs that lap at the brain, like waves on a hull.

The Kamehameha info I vaguely knew, due to past academic and professional work revolving around indigenous legal rights.

Sadly, Cloudia, I did know about the magic of manifests of lading as implicit from the earliest known origins, from aspects of the Lex Rhodia, the Rhodian Sea Law. And the knowledge of what was in a ship without actually looking at it is a type of magic well understood by an accountant... and accountancy was origin of cuneiform script and resultant language... and I am a self-styled Akkadian Scribe... as Sepiru...

But, I am delighted to know that you see the inherent magic, although, Dear Cloudia, I know from your Comfort Spiral that you routinely see, and share, the magic of the world around you...

Dear Fireblossom,

Nail it away, although those lies away... know, however, that they are worth more than any Worms, even, or especially, a Diet of the same...

And I am delighted, and surprised, that you stopped by, too!

Thank you!

Dear United Statesian,

Glad that you enjoyed the visit. Ambergris... a fine find. And no, I was not searching for that when I was beached...

You may note that I revamped, as in removed, all the players from the posts. Hopefully there will be no more crashing.

Dear Felicity,

I am delighted to have positively influenced your day. Your posting had a similar beneficial impact on my day, too.

And thank you for your praise.

I blush.

Thank you all,