What’s in a Word?

I’ve noticed, while reading essays and speeches, that authors frequently like to use a word to encapsulate many meanings and motives. Words like integrity, grit, honesty, honour, and so forth. Funny. A word is usually short and is meant to identify a specific thing in a sentence. But we want some words to gather others to them.

The great Canadian essayist Adam Gopnik in his A Thousand Small Sanities: the Moral Adventure of Liberalism writes, and writes, and writes many other words describing and defining the word liberalism. William Safire, American speech writer (among other things) and news columnist, in his Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, cites many speeches which likewise pack many concepts into a word: words like duty, valour, faithful, and so forth.

It is as if it is thought that by remembering a single word, we can remember many inspirational feelings, feel comforted, be encouraged, made brave, given grace to feel, all because we have learned so much about the meaning of a commanding word.

A younger generation used to drive me nuts by acknowledging something I’ve said, by uttering “word” as a generic substitute for actually thinking of something responsive to say.
One used to hear (perhaps not often any more) the expression “I give you my word,” or “you have my word on it,” or “he/she is a man/woman of his/her word.” One might be called aside from a group with the request or command, “A word, please?” You knew there would be more than one word at that conversation.

As a clergy, I don’t know how many volumes have been written about the Greek logos or “word,” as found in the beginning of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For all that reading and prayerful study, it was only near retirement that I figured out what it might mean (I never paid attention to the Gnostic interpretations, because I didn’t think it had been demonstrated that there was influence on the gospel aside from the citation. Perhaps a better idea was that the gospel writer was trying to show from the outset a desire to speak to readers from many different persuasions – sorry, I can’t remember the citation for that thesis).

I think I figured it out while reading about how Charles Dickens auditioned his stories by reading out sections to public street and shop audiences — paying attention to how people responded, which characters drew sympathy and which, antipathy; whether the destiny of a particular character was accepted by the audiences. My understanding was this: that before Dickens could write a story, he had to have some element of it in his mind, a feeling or lesson, something which perhaps resembled Plato’s idea of form. Perhaps like a concept of a jacket before making, or an idea of a piece of furniture as imagined by the hand and eye in magic proportions. I do that in wood working –imagining a piece of furniture by identifying its purpose and who will use it, where it is to fit, how durable it must be, whether it can be rustic and simple (screwed together), or fitted together carefully with mortise and tenon, or wood dowels, or elaborate hardware with decorative screws or nails. The Word is something that must be filled with meaning in order to be real and actual rather than potential, but it is the beginning and foundation of the concept. Perhaps we need an overall category into which to place our intentions, emotions, and understandings? A zip file for all our documents.

I won’t draw out the theological results of that understanding, because this is not a religious blog. But they are profound.

Of course, theology aside, building a great essay or a great speech upon a single word is a dishonest thing to do. It is unlikely that remembering a word will bring all those other descriptions and definitions to mind when summoned; it is doubtful that our subconscious keeps a zip file that way. What the essayist or rhetor is really trying to do is convince the audience of the presenter’s values, way of seeing things, way of keeping him/herself together in the stresses of life. Were we not promised a mnemonic device, one word, to help us gather all this wisdom and keep it, we might eschew listening, or reading about these values. My Values or My Reasons for Action is probably an uninviting title, unless you are greatly interested in my thoughts. But The Meaning of Honour, or How to be an Honourable Person might get your attention.

And if someone were to ask what you are reading, or what the speaker’s topic was, how easy to answer, “It was about honour.”
“Oh, what about it?”
“Well, he gave several excellent examples of honourable people, and told some great stories about them, and cited some inspiring statements by Churchill, and….” Here, now that you have asked about it, hold open your bag labelled “honour” and I’ll fill it with as much as I can remember.

Whether looking at Word that way, or looking at it the first way (the originating concept which must be filled in to make the good story), it’s a very useful tool. It holds significance by virtue of its meaning and content.

My immediately previous posting about generosity is a good example. See how much I had to put into the Word to convey (perhaps) all its meanings: photos, several different examples, a discussion of the builder’s undoubted purposes? In a way, that gazebo would in itself be a Word, but the Word would be generosity.

It is only when one has heard the stories, examples, reasons, and meanings of the Word, that one can give informed consent to it. In these times of quick arguments, often shallow, subconsciously derived opinions and arguments, decontextualized information via Google rather than a book, one realizes how much time and attention are really due a Word, in order to understand what the writer or rhetor means by it.

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