Post 16

What’s the Word? Reflections on Capturing the Concept

In early April I came across an incredible article that was written by H.I. Brock, a writer for the New York Times.  It was published August 18, 1912.  He had travelled to England and visited G.K. Chesterton.

After tea, he observed Chesterton working through some new concepts.

I loved this article, because I had just recently been noticing how time-consuming it is to figure things out.  I approach the topic, make a few inroads but then have to back up and try a new starting point.  All that groping around for words and angles makes for such an inelegant process!

Until then, I imagined that it was an entirely different process for the geniuses like Chesterton.  I truly thought it all came to him in a blinding flash of inspiration and all he had to do was express it.

I love how H.I. Brock was able to put into words what he observed:

Tea disposed of, Chesterton, a whale of a man with ambrosial locks and heavy tread, rambles like a huge blunderbuss about the room and talks.  And as he walks and talks he blunders about among his words exactly as he blunders about among the furniture.  He seems to be feeling his way through a blur of terms and names, struggling with the stiff, reluctant clay of language in which all thought is imprisoned, to get the right words to hold the true mold of sense.

. . .

He is fumbling–literally fumbling–after the truth, the “net” truth, as it were.  He is rummaging in the rubbish heap of words and concepts to which a slovenly race of thinkers has reduced the working dictionary of the English tongue. He seeks the clear word for the clear idea.

And that’s exactly it, isn’t it?  We see something or hear something and immediately there’s an impression, but we don’t have the words and the clear thoughts yet.  Such-and-such a person seemed so, so, — oh, what is it?!  And so we do fumble around, looking at all the words available to us (an even smaller “rubbish heap of words” nowadays, but over there a growing pile of acronyms and emoticons!) and trying to figure out what word will fit the bill.  From there, we can delineate the rules, the principles, the truths, which tie this impression in to the other ones we’ve got in storage.

KindOne once told me she heard that a person can think beyond their vocabulary, but not by much.  And that makes sense.  The words are little containers for ideas.  If we lose the words, we lose the ideas too.  How sad it is then that we’re losing our comprehension of the English language.  We’re not only losing access to great works of literature but we’re losing our ability to think!  Less and less, people are using their words to communicate ideas of substance.  Instead we’re getting to the point that we’re just expressing emotions, and even animals do that.

And then the tricky thing with finding the right words is that some words have changed their meaning or at least their associations.  A word that was formerly good enough to use as a first name, like prudence, is now is associated with being uptight and stuffy; who would be ready to give their daughter that name anymore?  Chesterton says, in the first chapter of Heretics, that the reversal of associations in the case of the words ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ are proof of the corruption of the times:

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word ‘orthodox.’ . . . [Nowadays the heretic] says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical,’ and looks round for applause.  The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.  The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.

In the middle of a conversation with some relatives about religion, someone went and checked into the definition of atheism, and found a website – Atheists of America or something like that.  This group said that the original working definition that they had previously used of atheism was ‘the dogma that there is no God etc etc’ but they said that the updated (and presumably better) definition was that ‘they had no belief system whatsoever’ or something to that effect.  My point is that they were running away from the word ‘dogma’ because it sounded so very religious, and of course from their perspective, they wanted to be as non-religious as possible.  So they shunned the word, but thereby lost the truth that went along with it, which is that atheism does take a position; it is a set of beliefs.

So as our society gets less and less religious, it also discards its heritage of a whole bunch of really useful words, and, lacking these words, is far less capable of understanding itself.  So now an atheist says, “There is no God; I have no belief” when really he should say, “I believe there is no God.”  They just can’t stand the word ‘believe’ nor ‘dogma’ because now these words are equated with ‘superstitious’ or ‘group-think.’

But the association of words is there, and so it’s natural that when we like or dislike a word, it’s often because of that association.  When I was working on adapting Old Testament passages for a play, I was conscious of the fact that if I were to use the words exactly as written, the modern viewer would be really irritated, because the words now sound all wrong.  How can a character tell a modern audience that he has “lived righteously?”  That would be a cue to the audience that he’s the arrogant villain, would it not?  Everyone would be hoping for his ruin.  And yet previously, it would have been heard the way it was intended, just as a man who loved God and looked out for his neighbour.

And this is where the use of Latin makes a lot of sense.  Because it’s not being used ‘on the street’ anymore, Latin doesn’t suffer this shifting of meanings where a lapse of ten years calls for a translation.  The use of Latin keeps the meaning intact and useful for documents where the precise word is so important, such as in church documents which set out, indeed, dogma.  (Dogma is good, but more on that a different day).

It’s kind of like the almost-archaic words that are found in legal documents, the really small print on multi-page contracts, or in wills.  I used to think they were horrible, because they were so hard for the average person to understand.  I used to like the ‘plain-language’ movement.  But now I see the beauty and the advantage in those original words.  The advantage is that those words have been tried and tested, by which I mean that the meanings of the words have been already hammered out through years of going through judicial decision-making, and so they’ve become a ‘known quantity.’  If it says, “per stirpes” in a will, that won’t mean anything to the grandmother whose lawyer has put it in there, but it will have a distinct legal meaning, and it will get the executor and the beneficiaries through the situation if they need to deal with it.  I guess that’s the way it is in any technical field, where the words have to be really precise so that everyone is talking about the same thing.

And on the topic of words, I really like how Chesterton says (in Chapter 6 of his biography on St. Thomas Aquinas) that the feel of the words is important, in all writing:

The new psychologists, who are almost eagerly at war with reason [as the modern philosophers], never tire of telling us that the very terms we use are coloured by our subconsciousness, with something we meant to exclude from our consciousness.  And one need not be so idealistically irrational as a modern psychologist, in order to admit that the very shape and sound of words do make a difference, even in the baldest prose, as they do in the most beautiful poetry.

This is so true!  The shape and sound do make a difference!  And there are so many evocative words.  I like “Once upon a time” (which I once spotted on a ‘Word Wall’ in a classroom using the whole-language literacy method, so perhaps it’s actually just one word: once-upon-a-time.)  I like “forevermore” too.

But back to Chesterton, I find it fascinating to hear that it cost him some effort, to hear that he too needed to struggle to put the right words onto the impressions and arrive at what’s true. I also find it interesting that there were passages in St Thomas Aquinas’ work that a genius like Chesterton could not keep up with (Chapter 6 in his biography of the saint):

Needless to say, I am not so silly as to suggest that all the writings of St. Thomas are simple and straightforward; in the sense of being easy to understand.  There are passages I do not in the least understand myself; there are passages that puzzle much more learned and logical philosophers than I am; there are passages about which the greatest Thomists still differ and dispute.

At the end of the day, then, it is good and useful to choose our words to the best of our ability, cost what it may, and fumble though we might.  The right word will clarify our thinking and enable us to reach each other with the minimum of distortion, and that’s a good thing.

[May 16, 2015]