Choosing Words

I’ve wanted to write a blog post for several days and could not find the words to offer anything very interesting. But this morning, reading “The Art of Description” by Mark Doty, I came to a passage I’d marked some days ago and found worth pondering.

“…each descriptive act is one attempt to render the world, subject to revision. Perception is provisional; it gropes, considers, hypothesizes. Saying is now a problematic act, not a given; one might name what one sees this way, but there’s also that one, and that one. And if we’re not certain what we should say, can we be certain of what we’ve seen?”

Doty is primarily speaking on writing and especially poetry, but I also see the same dynamics in spoken words between people. We don’t know how to communicate because we don’t know what we’re seeing in the other person. We filter our vision through our own perspective. Say for example the other person frowns: we could read this as a disapproving look towards ourself or we could read it as a thinking frown, removing the person’s interest from ourself and into their own head, or we could believe a tiny bug creeps through the eyebrow hairs. So, okay, that’s probably not really very likely, but you get the point. I hope. We don’t really know what a frown means and only interpret it according to our own experience, our own perspective. I would certainly frown on feeling a tiny bug clambering though my eyebrow – either one, come to think of it. And then I’d worry about ticks or something. At that point, I’m both frowning from a physical feeling AND a worry. See what I mean?

Some months ago, while reading The Meaning of Meaning, I came across the concept that words, in themselves, have no meaning – words are symbols of thought. Interesting. Words as symbols of thought. And that would explain why, even when two people speak the same language and have the same background, we can misunderstand the thought that creates the sentence. “But you said…..” we say. “No I didn’t say…..” we say. But not understanding that words reflect thought, thinking instead they reflect more words in a dictionary, we misunderstand the thought and think about the thought that’s created in our own personal repertory of experiences and perception. And then we argue about a word.

“Help me understand,” I sometimes manage to say. Help me unpack your experience and understanding so that I can understand what you are thinking. E-mail, for example, is notorious for being misunderstood. We can’t read the person’s perception electronically.

I like words. I like studying words and using a thesaurus and a dictionary to find the etymology and symbology of words. And I like writing them down and looking at them. And I like the precision of finding the exact right word to express the  thought, even a thought that’s muddled. Muddled. Now there’s a kindly word. Muddled much kinder to my thought-process than stupid. But then stupid is a word I almost never use.

Maybe today is a day to think about the words you use – both toward yourself and toward others. Can you surprise yourself with the words you use by connecting them to the thoughts that produce them? Now there’s a task that could keep you pretty well occupied for most of the day!

Happy thinking.


12 thoughts on “Choosing Words

  1. Have you tried the visual thesaurus? It’s my new favorite word finder, when you’ve almost got to the right word, but know it’s not quite there. My brother got it for me for my Birthday. Good brother.

    1. Good brother, indeed. Keeper brother is what I’d call him. Never heard of a visual thesaurus! Does that mean I’d have to give up my beloved, dog-eared, and underlined American Heritage??? And then where would I find the Indo-European roots…. see, words get really complicated. But I love the idea/sound of “visual thesaurus.” Cool.

  2. A good book to read along these same lines is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams. He explains how much we’ve lost by relying on words to begin with — a fascinating book, exquistely written

  3. our grand kids are here for three weeks. are dinner it came up about how we say things, tone has meaning too. ie…last night it was ok to tell your sister that she needed to do a better job brushing her teeth, it was not ok to yell at her about it., at work i looked at a pile of boxes and said, That’s a half a days work. (it was 3;00) the guys took it personal and trippled the pile in an hour. i only ment filling the boxes would take a half a day. it worked to my advantage but made me feel like the kind of boss i don’t like. it’s hard to be clear in the world of words

  4. Sometimes my grandchildren and I like to make a list of words we just like the sound of, regardless of their meaning.
    Like ‘plum’, rolls off the tongue and plops right out of the mouth!
    Or the Spanish word ‘albondiga’, sounds far more exotic than ‘meat ball’.
    But I am also enthralled with the French word ‘aubergine’ for ‘eggplant’.

    Hmmm, there seems to be a food theme to this conversation. Now that’s food for thought!

    1. Thanks, Valorie. When I lived in Mexico, I’d often choose words just for the sound of them. Madrugada – I loved the sound of that! And another simple English word I love the sound of is “dwindle.” Now all I have to do is put those together in a really complicated sentence…..

  5. I’ve done some terrible communicating with ill-chosen words in the past. It’s better for me in written form, but choosing good words before speaking them is always so hard, especially when the message is unpleasant.

    1. I understand how the written form is easier, but we don’t always get that luxury, do we. I’m a blurter – all my nearest and dearest will tell you that – but I wonder if any communication is as much “terrible” as it is ineffective.

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