A recent Christmas in July celebration reminded me of one of my favorite carols, the one that urges us to “make your yuletide gay.” I also like the closing of “The Flintstones” theme song that promises we’ll have “a gay old time.“
Good reminders of how words evolve.
We tend to think of words as precise expressions, things that can be pinned down to specific definitions that everyone will understand the same way for all times. Of course, that’s not the case at all. The author infuses a word with a meaning, the reader interprets it another way.
Happens all the time.
When we have to express something important, we realize how nearly impossible it can be to find just the right word, one that the other person will understand as intended.
This is especially true when we try to express our thoughts about things like life, love, God, faith, our feelings for each other. We recognize that words are inexact expressions of partially formed ideas.
A word is like a cup.
If you take a cup and dip it into the ocean, the cup won’t contain the entire ocean. It will contain only a tiny bit of the ocean. But there will be enough there to give you a few ideas about the ocean itself.
A word can never contain more than a little bit of anything. We can try to get around this limitation by multiplying our words, hoping for more clarity. Or we add more syllables to our words — think “transubstantiation,” for instance — only to find that the additional syllables take us farther away from the deeper meaning.
So, why does any of this matter?
When we forget the limitations of words — ours and others’ — , we get into trouble. Even in their inadequacy, words are very powerful.
Words evolve. Words change. Words are rooted in their specific languages and cultures and times; when we uproot them and try to transplant them to our language and culture and times, important meanings and contexts get stripped out and lost.
That’s something to keep in mind the next time we’re tempted to pluck a verse from a religious text or historical document. Words can easily be misconstrued or twisted into something the speaker never intended.
A word is a word, with all of its limitations.
And all of its power, too.
One of our religious texts starts by saying that “In the beginning was the word.” Words are beginnings, not endings. Starting points, not finish lines. They launch us in a direction instead of taking us to a destination.
Words can inspire and empower and connect. They can bring about change. They can become a cup full of love — not all love, but some love. Enough love. Love that overflows the cup.
Words are as powerful as they are limited. In a sense, it’s their limitations that make them powerful. Instead of telling us everything about something, words point us toward something beyond themselves.
During the final “Harry Potter” film, Harry accepts his death and is reunited with Dumbledore. Harry has another deep conversation with his beloved professor, asking important questions. And, as they often do, they get around to talking about words.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion,” Dumbledore says, “our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”