A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
~ Emily Dickinson
A word is dead when it is said, some say.
Dead things do not change (except to decay). There is nothing pulsing inside them. They do not grow or stretch or think. They are cold, stiff, unfeeling. They do not change direction. They do not respond. They are finished, over, chiseled in stone.
Some words, it seems, die quietly, of plain old age and disuse. Their passing, if we are even aware of it, doesn’t affect us much. They’re a little like the great aunts we might have met once at a family reunion when we were very young, the ones whose pictures look vaguely familiar when we flip through old albums. We may recognize them with a half-smile, murmur something about what interesting lives they must have had, and forget them once the page is turned. Widdershins, for example: she was a fine old character, but she only appeared once or twice on the periphery of my experience. And remember ugsome? Not really, but I heard an amusing story about her once. I can’t honestly say I miss them, or even notice their absence from day to day.
It’s harder to accept the loss of words that have been waylaid and maimed. You know the ones I mean. Queer. Retard. Gay. A dozen others now declining in similar fashion. Like beloved grandparents ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease, their appearance hasn’t changed, but the meaning, the personality behind the face, is so altered as to be almost unrecognizable. The body is still here, but we mourn the death of the original spirit.
Then, sadly, there are words that meet violent ends – maybe sometimes as accidental casualties of simple carelessness, but sometimes through malice aforethought. Some say words in such a way that they fall, already lifeless, from their lips.
Who are these some, and what are the death sentences they pronounce? Absolute literalists: “That’s what the Bible says. Period.” Hopeless fatalists: “The doctor said it’s incurable.” Immovable traditionalists: “It’s sacrilegious to change the old way of saying things.” Smug pedagogues: “It means what I say it means. How dare you question my authority?” Harsh critics: “You’re never going to be any good.” Implacable parents: “Don’t ask again. That’s my final word on the matter.” To all of these, a word is dead when it is said.
I say it just begins to live that day.
Living things breathe. They are warm and fluid. They grow, they ripen. They move and change and interact with other living things. They feel and remember and dream. They have the power to engender more life.
I am awed by the innate power, the pulsing life of words. I believe that when we speak or write them, we give words birth. And like children, they fare forth and grow in ways we don’t always expect. It’s a risk, sending our words (and our kids) out into the wide world, among people who neither know nor care what pains we took to plan and prepare and present the fruits of our labors. We can’t be sure that they will be understood and appreciated for what we think they are; in fact, it’s more certain that they sometimes won’t be. And this is the frightening and freeing mystery.
“…our works never mean to others quite what we intended; because we
are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His
meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is
impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our own
works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and
truest one,” C.S. Lewis says in “Bluspels and Flalansferes.”
We do the best we can, as writers, as speakers, as parents. We struggle to make our ideas clear, to impart our values, to get everything just right. We invest ourselves, body, mind, and soul, in our offspring of flesh and blood, pitch and timbre, paper and ink. And then we let them go, trusting them to the Omnipotence, knowing they will go places and touch people we will never see, in ways we can’t anticipate. We understand, if only dimly, that although we gave them birth, the breath of life within them is not of our making, not subject to our control, not dependent upon us. We are, at best, conduits. When we allow echoes of the Word that spoke the world into existence to flow through us, they begin to live that day.
This piece was first published as “A Word Is Dead” on http://www.allninemuses.wordpress.com on September 9, 2012