What’s in a Word?

from November 21, 2012

Words are invaluable. I don’t care if you pay a monthly newspaper subscription, or hire someone to write a speech, or sue someone for not following through on a contract. Far into the future, just before we hammer out communicating via thought, words will still be here, as implacable as mountains. They are so precious, fragile, and powerful that many times, I am astounded by how nonchalantly people bastardize their meaning, or adopt the notion that word choice isn’t a big deal. I am here with my diction to set the record straight.

For a little bit of background, let’s just say I didn’t have a white picket fence, American dream childhood. Verbal abuse, plus getting made fun of day in and day out at school turned me toward our Girl Scout Ship with overwhelming appreciation. It gave me a haven in high school in which I found friends who helped teach me to stand on my own, and that if my older sister could get past this ridicule, so could I. That thought made everything we had in common so much more inspiring than I think your average sophomore can absorb. One of those was log rolling, trying to stay standing on a slick log floating in Lake Michigan. At my second Bay Jammer (for the unaware, that’s the longest running coed scout competition in its 65th year in 2013) back in ’99, they announced winners for the Log Rolling event by unit, instead of now where they name the individual competitor. When they listed off 361 for First Place, they let me go get it and run it back to the group. I was ecstatic, saying to my sister, “Yeah! We did it!” and she just shook her head and said, “Nope, that was all you.” That is still one of my most memorable accomplishments to this day. Somehow, I knew a phrase like, “All right! Props, sis!” just wouldn’t cut it. So, does word choice matter?

As time went on, I grew up in the ship, yet I had never really adopted a little sister–in our tradition of taking a younger girl under your wing to mentor and guide and advise where needed. There really wasn’t one in particular I clicked with, and I really wanted to, in order to be an example like mine was to me. Right after I graduated, I went to the GS National Jamboree with a couple of girls from Byron that I had only met that year. I got to tell them all about 361 adventures during our three harrowing weeks of heat, teenage drama, cousin squabbles, and I was the most senior. Mom pushed that on me since their troop was in danger of disbanding. And that inevitable meeting did come after we parted ways. They were asked one by one what they felt would be the best for them all. When it got around to the first of the girls from Idaho, she responded that she didn’t want to continue unless she could join 361. She went on to be our boatswain (aka president), the first of several generations of Byron members, and of course, my first little sister. A year or two down the road, she would give me a copy of a paper she wrote for school over the impact I had on her, how she learned never to stereotype people “because you’ll never know how they can change a person’s life.” And word choice doesn’t matter?

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I adopted a second little sister just as she was graduating. I had seen her mature more in her first two years in the ship than I had seen dozens do in their entire scouting career. And that wasn’t even considering the second half of high school, either. Our friendship easily fell into sharing everything from stupid jokes to memorable quotes to three hour long conversations at 2 am. Thoughts and concepts that seemed so obscure were things that ended up connecting us. For my birthday, I got an envelope that held a picture of the two of us in a ridiculously staged scene of a mock snowball fight with the caption “Sisters in every sense of the word” and three simple 8 1/2″ x 11″ pages that were home to a journal entry of her first Bay Jammer. Between evidence of a typical freshman vocabulary was a very real commentary on our first interactions. One part in particular covered our rededication ceremony, during which I told my story about the Log Rolling ribbon, and how she “cried because [she] would never have a sister to do and say things like that.” It was a little sad, sure, but touching and inspiring as well. And word choice doesn’t matter?

Words are incredible reflections of us as people. The amount of metaphors for time and money in English is comparable to the amount of translations of “honor” in Japanese. Be it with loved ones, at work, for yourself, playing sports, or even writing, time is too precious to be cheapened down to the level of money. As often as I can, I avoid using spent, invested, worth, etc. in relation to time. I’m removing it from the Pahmoten books–in fact, when a world traveler in my second book slips up and uses “spent an hour,” the others with him make a big deal of it and use a large part of the conversation explaining ‘that culture’ where time equals money. I refuse to put “my” in front of titles like lord, lady, king, queen. To me, that implies ownership, and I can never think of people being objects to be possessed.

I’ve also taken up arms using “I don’t know.” Nine times out of ten, people end an answer or explanation with it, as if trailing off in uncertainty or embarrassment. And it kills me when my friends, family, athletes, scouts give in to it. What they have forgotten is that they have NO reason to be ashamed. YOU know yourself and your feelings better than anyone alive. Why put yourself or your judgment down by implying that your words are inferior because they may not make sense to someone else? Or because you don’t want to offend someone by making too strong of a stand or criticism? Over the past couple months, I’ve pointed it out to a few people, encouraging them to honor themselves and say what they want to around me. Personally, that phrase is no longer an acceptable response that I can offer.

But the most important distinction in my life is the use of ‘home.’ Growing up on 7 1/2 acres of woods, I was in paradise. My siblings and I played in the woods all the time. We had a soccer field out front where my brothers and sister practiced their tails off in the grueling summer heat. It was where we made snow forts in the winter, and built ones from boxes in the basement. I had a treehouse and millions of adventures that will no doubt someday spring up in my books. All of that centered around our two story, stone fireplace home, so when my parents’ divorced and mom was forced to sell the house, I was devastated. I couldn’t even finish out my high school ears in the home that was as much a part of our family as we humans were. It wasn’t until later on in my writing career that I nailed down my definition of ‘home,’ in that it’s never a place, but the people and memories, a sense of safety, a haven. When my loved ones are within arm’s reach, and I can laugh whole-heartedly at a funny story, or feel like everything’s going exactly as Fate intended. That is home.

I would hope that’s enough evidence at this point, so now to the reasons why. Words connect everyone, everywhere. As mentioned, they’ve been around since the beginning of man, even though they’ve changed enormously since. In a world of internet, Facebook, Twitter, and texting, it’s no wonder that a more ‘connected’ human race now faces a rapidly diminishing ability to connect physically with others. Body language or tone is too often lost in translation, and these misinterpretations lead to stress and drama, especially in our younger generations. The weight of diction and accuracy is more now than ever crucial to our survival. Why bother wasting time driving across town to visit a friend and laugh at a joke when we can send a quick ‘lol’ to their phone? The more we give up and refuse to preserve of our oral history, the more we submit to the idea that relating to each other doesn’t matter, and the more we lose of the range of ideas and concepts our languages can express. Look at humanity’s track record–but carefully, or the slippery slope we’re on will claim another victim.

Now, the value of how we use words cheapens the phenomenal works of Shakespeare, Tolkien, Wolfe. More and more, their masterpieces are regarded as lengthy, flowery, complex. Well, my good mortals, do you think and dream in black and white? Can you understand all of the symbolism behind a triumphant athlete raising her fist in victory? Do you know her story that has made that moment strong enough to shatter decades-old oppression? Or is she just celebrating a single point in the match? You describe a white flower in literature today, and people think a flower with white petals. A hundred years ago, one wondered how the purity of the white relates to the circumstances, or whether the life of a flower represents the growth of [insert character name]. The pressure and fast pace of the present has bled this appreciation out of us. I can’t dig on parodies and internet memes–because the only way to truly show your love for something is to admit its imperfections, revel in its ridicule, and still cherich every instance in your life. However, there’s a difference between loving the good with the bad, and blatant neglect and ignorance. We have become blind to the depth of words, so our literary legends and our own potential is becoming endangered.

I give the utmost importance to words because they are the first steps taken by dreams and hopes and fears as they go from within our hearts and out into the harsh light of day. If I discipline my speech and graphite trails to reflect exactly what I believe, then I hear and see my convictions in an external source, and my identity becomes stronger in a beautiful, supportive cycle. My loved ones comprehend more clearly what I stand for, how much confidence they can place in me, and my enemies see my full capability, learn to fear me as they see the flaws that I’ve examined and extinguished. If life is short, then I need to put as much meaning and emotion behind each syllable I get, in order to live to my fullest. Even if I’m alone, I will fight tooth and nail, as the Great Bard says, for that weight of this sad time we must obey, and speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

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