Words: Good for Naming Stuff and Doing Things

83a384d8dbc5651bf8d5bf1e467eafc1Depending on your occupation, you hear anywhere between 30,000 – 100,000 words in a day.  On typical day at work, I’ll hear somewhere near 80,000. Some of those 80,000 words are phonetically fascinating like ‘acquiesce’ and ‘clatterfart’ (go ahead and snicker, it’s a word), ‘laceration’, ‘nefarious’, ‘paradisaical’, ‘rascality’…

And some just are intensely interesting in their definition like:

wun·der·kind n. from German wunder kind):  a little person of remarkable ability who achieves astounding success at an early age.

bel·gard n. from Italian bel guardo: a kind or loving look.

e·the·re·al  adj.  extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.

Other times, I hear words that are not so interesting like ‘engineering’ or ‘electrical’.  I don’t have a general bias against ‘e’ words, it’s just that I find these two especially exasperating.

Nevertheless, my job is to hear those as well as words that start with the other 25 letters.  Actually, the university pays me to listen to words, figure out what they mean and then find a way to say the same thing in a different language.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is the ability to perceive sound.  We detect vibrations in the air then convert those vibrations into electrical activity which is sent to your brain via your nerves and voila!  You hear the toilet running.  It’s a physical phenomenon.

Listening is a mental phenomenon.  You can be unable to hear sound but still be a listener.  It’s a process of deriving meaning from what you hear and see.  Listening is an involved, empathetic effort to understand.  An illocutionary force.

This is the kind of stuff I studied in college.  Some of what I know about listening and language is useless (i.e. illocutionary force).  An illocutionary force or act refers to the type of function a speaker intends to accomplish in the course of producing an utterance.  It took me four years to learn that all of that means:  When someone says “I can’t carry a tune” it doesn’t mean she cannot physically lift and move a tune.  She really means “I will not be in the ward choir because I sing like an injured cat.”

Other stuff I’ve learned about language is useful like:

Words are good for naming stuff.  The Barenaked Ladies wrote a song about uvulas (those little fleshy punching bags that hang down in the back of our throats), philtrums and frenulums.  It’s called There’s a Word for That.  You’ll thank me for the reference next time you need to remember the name for the small fold of tissue that connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth.

Humans, in one language or another, have named everything of which we can conceive.  Like cacti and couches.  Sovereignty and melancholy.  Googling, Pinning, snowshoeing and sneezing.  We’ve even designated words to name the things we just can’t quite recall.  Lethologica (or tip-of-the-tongue phenomena) is an individual’s inability to articulate his or her thoughts by temporarily forgetting words, phrases or names in conversation.

Kormorebi is a Japanese word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees.

L’esprit de l’escalier (French for “stairway wit”) is a clever comeback that comes to mind after it’s too late to be useful.  Like when you’re in the shower.  Or weeding.  The closest phrase in English is “Doh!  I totally should’ve been like…”  Germans use the word “treppenwitz” to express the same idea.

In Russia, they have a word for that person who asks a lot of questions – a Pochemuchka.

And ‘sombremesa’ is the Spanish word for the time spent talking to the person or people with whom you just shared a meal.

We can invent words – very useful for when your sister is talking about something you don’t know how to label.  Reece, “I tried to wake up Emma but I couldn’t understand her.  She was talking blibberish.”

We can even use language to talk about language.  It’s called metalinguistics. That’s especially useful for writing blog posts about language.

But mostly we use words to make stuff happen – to communicate our intentions, to make people laugh, to instruct, to entertain, to hurt, to make better, to connect, to comfort.  You know how ‘sometimes someone says something really small and it just fits right into this empty place in your heart’?  That happens because words have power.

If you listened to John Keating in Dead Poets Society, you know that “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  Absolutely words have the power to do that.  On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and changed the course of civil history with his words “I have a dream…”  And at bedtime one night in August 2006, Sadie’s tiny 2 1/2 year old voice changed me with her words “Mom…you’re my best.”

An interesting fact about listening?  There is a limit.  People stop paying attention after so many words.  They don’t even realize they’re doing it.  There’s a word for that!  En·nui (an we) is a feeling of listlessness arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.  Tedium.

So make good use of your words!  Don’t walk around all day clatterfarting.  (ok, I don’t know if clatterfart can be used as a verb, but the shoe fits.)  Leaving a stream of dribbling nonsense terrifies me.  What trail are you leaving behind?

“Be still you when have nothing to say.  However, when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.” -DH Lawrence.  Choose words that brim with substance. Make them simple but significant.

The average person speaks 16,000 words in a day.  Use tomorrow’s 15,987 words to change the world.  Say please.  Say thank you.  Be kind.  Speak with intention.  Don’t fill my or anyone else’s attention allocation with pointless, self-serving idiocy.

Be brave.  Use your words to mend a quarrel.  Seek out a friend.  Manifest your loyalty.  Forego a grudge.     Apologize.  Make a laugh.  Encourage.  Express your gratitude.  Protect.  Defend.  Comfort.  Heal. Words can do all of this and more.

So text it.  Tweet it.  Post it.  Say it.  Write it.  Sing it.  Sign it.  Whatever.  Do it right now.  Speak your love and then speak it again.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.  -Forrest Gump


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