What if we took some set of sounds that are only nonsense in English, such as “flickyfloop”. And then imagine that everyone who speaks English agrees (the agreement is the important part) that this combination of sounds will mean the way you stand in one place and jump up and down to show how happy you are.
All I’m doing there is illustrating the idea that words are nothing but noises until people agree to give them meaning. Words exist because of social agreement. Of course we don’t always completely agree, and sometimes it’s a wondrous muddle that we communicate at all. I’ve had some fairly stupid arguments myself, where my interlocutor and I laid aside our real topic of strife, to batter at one another about misusing a word, and then the meaning of the word became the argument.
I’m not saying you should try that at home. But if you’re not a writer, then you’re probably smart enough not to do that anyway. I’m that way, a word freak, a language geek, my mind swirling with sounds and variations and the subtleties of how to use them, and they need to be right. I notice words constantly, in speech, in writing, everywhere I go.
Since I don’t have a “topic” for this blog entry that would justify removing those quotation marks, let’s consider some words that have blown through my house this week, beginning in the kitchen. I have a housemate who lives in a world where logic is rarely allowed to intrude and disturb her opinions. In her special world, there is an important place for the pronoun “they”, or to more properly represent her usage, They.
Pronouns normally have very little meaning by themselves. They’re just quick summary noises that let us avoid having to repeat nouns all the time. The real meaning is in the nouns the pronouns point to, but my housemate is nudging “They” into nounhood, as there is no real noun, no actual thing, behind the word when she uses it.
Her mysterious They is an unknown entity that controls things, though one could not say They are part of an actual conspiracy, as that would step too far in the direction of logic. Instead, They are like quantum particles, showing up in unexpected places with no connection to the starting point. In the chaotic world of my housemate’s mind, They do whatever pops into her head at any given moment, like control the oil supply or refuse to replace slums.
In addition to a kookyville conversation, this has been an unusual week. I bought a car on Wedneday (the first day of spring, so my car is green), and I’ve had a bit of actual work to do. Drawing on my humble honest labors, let’s move from creepy pseudo-noun to a couple of real nouns, words that were new to me this week. I had to look them up, which I did on the internet, so I know I got this right.
Back on Monday I was editing an article on ceramics research sent to me by a researcher in China. And I know you’re thinking “Wow, Davy, you know about ceramics research?” No, of course not. I was an English major. I don’t know about anything. I can edit, though, and in the article I found the word “permittivity”. Does that look correct to you? It has an extra “t”, right? Not according to the ultimate source of all knowledge (Google). As to what “permittivity” means, who cares, we’re not doing ceramics research here. But it’s spelled correctly.
Also this week I was writing an article for the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine alumni magazine. (Isn’t that a mouthful? Like, say, chocolate.). In some information I was looking at before calling to interview a doctor, I found the word “motoneurons” that send signals to move muscles. Shouldn’t that be motorneuron, damn it? Where did the “r” go? Sheesh, these scientists. People who don’t do well in English classes go into science and start throwing away letters of the alphabet. We need those letters, people.
For lovely language, on the other hand, I’m reading a book of short stories by the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, who I was not aware of until last Sunday when I bought this book. She uses very interesting language sometimes, including words that I assume must be Irish dialect words, as I’ve never seen them before and can’t figure out where she got them.
Besides the dialect words, in the story “Manhattan Medley”, I found some words I could understand, but I think she made them up. I’m so charmed by the idea she invented them (something I like to do) that I’m deliberately not looking to see whether the words already existed. I’ve heard of a “miscreant” as a wrongdoing rascal, but O’Brien used the word “miscreance”, I suppose for the general act of doing wrong.
I plan to put that word on my flag, if I ever have a flag. In fact I want a flag now just to have that word on it. I’m going to make that word my motto. So watch out if you come to my house. It won’t be They causing problems. It will be me.