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TIMELESS WORDS


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JONAH AND THE WHALE” STONEWARE SCULPTURE BY KAYTI SWEEETLAND RASMUSSEN

A word is intangible. We can’t buy it in a store, hold it in our arms, or lock it in a safe. Yet, it’s infinitely shareable–we can send it to thousands and still use it ourselves.

A word is a link to history, a bridge to the future. The word ‘wisdom’, for instance, is the same word that was once spoken by the author of Beowulf, those same letters appeared in Shakespeare’s plays, Emerson wrote with the same syllables, and the reporter in today’s newspaper makes use of the very same word.

We might well wonder what words Jonah uttered as he was being slowly introduced to the interior of the whale. I’m sure the Bible has him sending up a plea to the Almighty to save him from almost certain familiarity with the digestive process soon to come. But what did he really say?

“Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills. William Hazlitt, essayist (1778-1830)”

There are so-called “good” words and “bad” words, and these sometimes change with the vernacular of the generations. Many of the words our parents thought of as bad words are in common use today. Bill Bryson says “More than 350 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to”. No other language has achieved such eminence, overcome such odds, inspired such majesty of thought, or caused such confusion as English.

New words come into existence every day, with the birth of new industries. Each profession and business has it’s own language peculiar to them. For instance the terms I might use as an artist would not be useful to a dog catcher or a Paramedic.

Scholars have divided the history of the English language into three periods. Old English (from the middle of the 5th to the beginning of the 12th century). Middle English (12th century through the 15th), and Modern English (16th century onwards.

To confuse things further, we have British English and American English, and we all fall under the designation as speaking the “Mother Tongue”. Erroneous words are sometimes introduced by respected users of the language who simply make a mistake. Shakespeare thought illustrious was the opposite of lustrous and for a time gave it a sense that wasn’t called for. More alarmingly, the poet Robert Browning caused considerable consternation by including the word twat in one of his poems, thinking it an innocent term. The work was Pippa Passes written in 1841 and now remembered for the line “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world”. But it also contains this disconcerting passage: Then owls and bats, Cowls and twats, Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods, Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning had apparently come across the word twat —which meant precisely the same then as it does now—and somehow took it to mean a piece of headgear for the nuns. Though it caused much hilarity among generations of schoolboys, it was never called to Browning’s attention, because no one could think of a suitably delicate way to explain it to him.

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10 comments on “TIMELESS WORDS

  1. Love your writing and glad you are out of the emergency room and back writing!!! Love you so much!!!😍😍😍😘

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. Thank you my sweet niece. I love you too, Sorry I caused an uproar, but I’m great now. It was really a first, and one I don’t care to repeat, but the Paramedics were awfully cute! (What I remember of them!)

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  3. Yes Kayti, it is strange how some words end up being used by some ignorant of their meaning. My mum used to call the baker the ‘bugger’. “Yes bugger, two loaves of brown bread today please.” She just used the Dutch word ‘bakker’ and anglicized it somewhat. Of course that was in the late fifties. Now, today I don’t think it would raise an eyebrow.

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    • Time changes everything doesn’t it? Time and place or origin as in your Mum’s s case. Bugger is close to the Dutch “bakker” . We have an old friend who uses the phrase ‘It’s a bugger”, without any attachment as to the original meaning. Simply meaning “This is difficult!

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  4. Sometimes finding the right words is a struggle. Even after much paring and grooming, rewriting and rearranging they still seem wrong. A moment comes when, despite all doubt, commitment occurs, either in writing or orally. Smug satisfaction or desperate embarrassment ensue interchangeably, either as to the meaning conveyed or as to the manner of expression, or both. Doubt always exists as to the effect on others.

    At other times, words flow of their own mysterious accord. Instant recognition or appreciation registers in the faces of listeners or sympathetic response in the minds of readers. No modification is ever contemplated or required.

    Those same processes apply whatever the circumstance, whether it is business, social, aesthetic, search for understanding, teaching, questioning, description or mere pleasure.

    Listeners and readers frequently judge instantly, often upon mistaken criteria. George Bernard Shaw did some disservice to the language when he invented Mrs Malaprop. Language evolves through random changes and uses and there is no inherent harm in the use of a “wrong” word if true meaning is nevertheless conveyed. After all, metaphor is a species of malapropism. Even unintended meaning can be interesting and thought-provoking and is always a source of enjoyment, cruel or otherwise, and a genuine education. Committing and avoiding mistakes is a vital part if our passage through life.

    Words are so vague in origin and in the minds of users that there can never be certainty. It is that very uncertainty that gives them their edge, scholars, critics and etymologists notwithstanding.

    Words are swallowed whole, digested and spewed out on the shore, renewed and transformed.

    I hesitate to ascribe these qualities uniquely to English. Its strength is in the ready acceptance and absorption of other languages and new forms.

    A most stimulating post this – words talking about themselves – and a fine sculpture, a single word, to go with it.

    A plethora of words, and now, heavenly silence …

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    • I have always found dubious pleasure in recreating a conversation if I thought I could have fared better. If, in protecting my own turf, I think of a finer way to win my case after I leave the scene of conflict, I chatter away in my mind and the mental verdict is always in my favor. Of course I Never actually re-engage my opponent, but it makes me feel better. I take more time at my “serious ” writing in the middle of the night than in my blog, which usually goes pretty fast. Plus I have unlimited time to go back and play with the words.

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  5. How times change! I had to laugh about Browning’s friends not wanting to be so indelicate as to point out his inadvertent use of a “bad” word. These days, it seems no one thinks twice about such words.

    Another fine sculpture: very well thought out in its design, with the whale twisted about on its stand so that Jonah is upright. I love the way Jonah’s arms are outstretched. Is he triumphant or beseeching?

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  6. Just to confuse matters further, in Australia we don’t use the word “twat” to refer to the same thing you use it for. For that thing, we sometimes use the word “fanny” which you use for another part of the nether regions πŸ™‚ Also, most Australians can’t help laughing when hearing an American talk about “rooting for the home team”.

    One current solecism driving me nuts is “incidences”. It’s everywhere!

    Great post.

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  7. What tickles me most about your sculpture is that the whale is employing the same tactic used by egrets, herons and cormorants with their fish. They flip them and turn them until they’re not cross-wise, but parallel with the gullet, and, hence, will slide down more easily. It looks like the whale’s trying the same thing with Jonah.

    Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that’s what we writers do? We flip those words this way and that, until we find a way to slide them into our sentences and paragraphs with perfect ease. Anything that resists too much, we just toss away and go looking for another.

    Speaking of words, there are a couple here that gave me a bit of a start – “emergency room”. Whatever that was about, you’re back and apparently in great good humor. I’m glad.

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