Words and Meaning

Words matter.

One of my favorite examples: on the semantic surface, one might think that butt dial and booty call certainly must mean something similar, if not the same thing entirely; their meanings, as I’m sure you are aware, are not even remotely the same.

While it may be true that certain butt dials may result in a booty call or two, for the most part these two terms are completely unrelated.

Another favorite pair: slim chance and fat chance. They mean the exact opposite, right? Nope, ‘fraid not. There’s a slim chance that you don’t understand the difference between a booty call and butt dialing, but fat chance me explaining it to you if you don’t already know.

Which reminds me of a story…

When I was in college, I had just completely bombed an important test, so to make myself feel better, I decided to take my pet giraffe Claude out for a night on the town, just the two of us. We got completely hammered, to the point where sometime around three in the morning Claude passed out and collapsed in the middle of the bar we were in. Getting the message through the inebriated haze, I settled up our tab and began to leave.

The bartender came out from around the bar and said, “Hey, mate – you ain’t not gonna leave that lyin’ there, are ya?”

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “My good man – that’s not a lion, that’s a giraffe.”

In the end, words matter because meaning matters. But why is that? Why are words, and their meanings, so damn important?

Well, first and foremost, the ability to communicate rich and complex meaning with our relatively vast vocabularies is part of what separates human beings from the rest of the animals living on this planet. Most animals have a way of communicating danger to each other, either through vocalizations or hand gestures (or some combination thereof), but only humans have the capacity to differentiate between “get out, the house is on fire!” and “I have to get out, my mother-in-law is coming over!” Two decidedly different types of danger, although each just as potentially devastating as the other in its destructive power.

Also, the myriad of layers of meaning in a well structured sentence or paragraph can give us the complete story – all of the context and meaning we could ever need is contained within all of the possible combinations of twenty-six simple letters (for English speakers, anyway). Words have awesome power – to make you laugh, to make you cry, to make you throw your iPad across the room in anger and frustration. It’s all there, contained in the simple arrangement of lines and spaces on the page or screen you are staring at.

And finally, words have the ability to convey abstract meaning in a way that pictures cannot. The best example I can thing of is this:

We die only when we run out of footprints then the biographers move in to retrace our paths, enclosing them in tall mazes of lumber to make our lives seem more complex, more arduous to make our leaving the room seem more heroic

Billy Collins,  Pensee (1999)

Find a way to express that with an image or gif, without words, and I’ll believe that words are not the most important means of communication, holding vast and unyielding power to move you in ways that are unimaginable. Words matter.

As a society, we seem to be moving towards more simplistic, self-centered modes of communication – letters become emails, emails become texts, etc. Most of the popular social media sites – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – are geared to the user telling their personal story, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when that becomes an individuals only mode of interaction with the world around them, it reinforces the idea that self is not just the most important thing, it’s the only thing. And that’s a problem.

All of this talk about self-centered points of view reminds me of another story…

A woman with cancer visits her oncologist, who tells her, “I’m sorry, but we’ve done everything we can possibly do. You’ve only got about eight hours left to live, why don’t you just go home and make the best of it?”

Dejectedly, she drives home and gives the news to her husband. Then she says, “Honey, let’s just make love to each other all night long!”

The husband hesitates, then says, “Well, you know how sometimes you say ‘no’ because you’re just not in the mood? I’m sorry, but I’m just not really in the mood right now.”

“Please!” she pleads with him. “It’s my last wish, to spend the night making love to you!”

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not up for it,” he replies.

“I’m begging you, darling – please!” she cries, “I really need this!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” her husband says, “you don’t have to get up in the morning.”

How’s that for selfish behavior? Surely, the husband’s attitude and behavior is the most selfish reaction conceivable.

That’s what I believe, anyway. And don’t call me Shirley.

What I’ve Learned

People, by nature, are warm and giving – I fall firmly on the environmental side of the nature vs. nurture debate. I believe that anti-social, hateful habits are learned, and those behaviors are perpetuated by fear and the desire to belong.

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