Month: January 2022

Fun With Words

 

I’ve just started reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It was a birthday present and I put off opening it until I had finished the Christmas books. Now I’ve turned the page and discovered a delightful surprise.  Years ago, my book club read The Professor and the Madman  by Simon Winchester. It is a story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary under the supervision of Prof. James Murray. This book, Lost Words, is based on the same historical event. 

Esme is the motherless daughter of one of the compilers. The book opens with Esme, aged 4 sitting under the table where the scholars are deciding which words belong in the dictionary and writing definitions.  So begins her fascination with words.

As Esme grows older she finds she is a misfit in society but her desire for words continues. She needs words to define herself,  to understand the world and to carry her through pain and disillusionment. The lost words in particular, words relating to the world outside the halls of power, become her beacon and form her career.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the opening chapters remind me yet again of the power of words. In the book the words that are “lost” often concern matters of importance to women but not to men, much like our history books focus on geopolitical events rather than domestic matters.

In my lifetime, the power of gender in language was exposed during the women’s lib movement of the ’60’s. That’s when we changed Miss and Mrs. to Ms,  when “postman” became “letter carrier” and “chairman” became “chair.” I accept most of the changes but I do object to that last one. i know chairperson is clumsy but I’d rather be called Madam Chairman than be referred to as a piece of furniture.

Currently the transgendered community is trying to incorporate another change in pronouns, preferring “they” even in the singular, or some new word like zir. Even official forms are now giving “other” as a choice under gender.

History abounds with examples of words changing their meaning. 

  • Nice once meant silly, foolish or simple. Not a compliment!
  • Hussy comes from the word housewife and meant mistress of the household. Can’t explain why it came to mean a disreputable woman today. Maybe that is one of the lost words in Ms Williams’ book. 
  • Brave meant handsome in Shakespeare’s time.
  • Unpregnant , not a term we’re used to, meant idiotic or insane.
  • Sad didn’t mean blue, but merely serious.  One could be perfectly content but have a “sad” conversation in Tudor England.
  • Grace at the time the King James Version of the Bible was prepared, always meant Divine Grace. It was never used to mean elegant, or nimble, or poised.

It is wise to bear in mind that words change their meaning when we read old texts such as Shakespeare’s plays or early translations of the Bible, or Pilgrim’s Progress, or Canterbury Tales.

Words are also manipulated in cultural matters.

  • Abortion is called termination.
  • Euthanasia is called MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying).
  • Lies are called disinformation.
  • Since we cannot accept ourselves are wrong-doers, the word sin has pretty well disappeared from everyday usage.
  • Our loved ones don’t die any more, they pass.

Whether or not one agrees with these changes, the fact remains that words are so powerful, we are constantly working to make them more potent or to soften them. A person who would never use fists to settle an argument, will corrupt words to attain the same end. 

The English language is a wonderfully evolving and expressive set of words. How those words came to be included in our dictionaries and how some have changed through the ages is a topic for a myriad (10,000) scholars. For an amateur wordsmith it’s a never-ending pleasure.

A favourite pastime on social media these days is listing odd words. Hornswoggle is an oft cited example. One of my favourites comes from Regency romance, “mutton dressed as lamb,”

What about you, dear reader. Do you have a favourite word or expression? Leave it in the comments below, if possible in a sentence, so we can all expand our knowledge of words. 

P.S. I’ve become an enthusiastic player of Wordle. 

My best score is getting it on the second try.

 

 

 

 

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Words and Power

Recently Canada Post honoured author, Margaret Atwood, with a  stamp.

In her speech acknowledging the honour, she made many jokes about being “not dead yet,” as most honourees in this category are deceased. She explained that her eyes are closed because she’s thinking, and generally thanked the post office while maintaining a modest (very Canadian) demeanour. Her audience was delighted.

The imprint shows a photograph of Ms Atwood, superimposed on the text, “A word after a word after a word after a word is power.” How appropriate that the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” pays homage to the power of words.

For any who doubt the power of words, history is littered with examples of the grand and the eloquent.

Churchill’s oratory is considered a major weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. His stirring speech promising “blood, sweat and tears” to a citizenry suffering through the Blitz, lifted morale and persuaded a tired, bombed-out citizenry to “carry on.” After Dunkirk, he vowed ” we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,”  and a beaten and demoralized army put itself  together and prepared for D-Day and eventual victory.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

J. F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your nation can do for you” speech fired a generation to enrol in the Peace Corps.

From the Psalms to Justin Beiber, humanity has revealed its soul and its greatest longings through words and music

There is a flip side to the power of words too. Hitler used his mezmerizing oratory to stir up hatred and cause the death of millions and millions of people.

Shakespeare could not have imagined modern communications when he gave these words to Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar.

 The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This destructive power of words is manifestly evident in  the age of social media, where on-line trolls use the power of words to destroy lives and drive children to suicide.

Theodore Roosevelt said:

In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor. 

Although Bunyan and later Teddy Roosevelt were condemning the Man with the Muck Rake, it speaks to the power of words that in the 21st century, over 325 years after Pilgrim’s Progress was published, the term muckraker is still in common usage.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying congratulations to Margaret Atwood, and to Canada Post for recognizing her genius. It is also a reminder to writers and readers alike that words matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may offer comfort to a crying child, but it is not true. Sticks and stones and tanks and bombs can break bones and bodies, but words change minds. They break hearts or bring joy. They are the manifestation of ideas, the essence of thought. Words are powerful and dangerous and beautiful. Be careful how you use them.

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