We speak them, we think them, they are one of the ways we communicate – though their meaning and intent are often way off the mark.
In the first half of my creative career, I studied acting, with the intent of making a living at it. There is still a part of me that yearns for the stage, to speak words that move and inspire. I remember reading Hamlet, and being struck by the exchange between the Danish Prince and Polonius in which Shakespeare toys with language and meaning:
[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I’ll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words.
What is the matter, my lord?
I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.
[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method
in ‘t. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
Into my grave.
Indeed, that is out o’ the air.
Hamlet’s reply when asked what he is reading is full of meaning and ambiguity: Words. He doesn’t just say it once, he says it three times. And it’s up to the interpretation as to what the meaning of that line is.
On one hand you could just read it as a throw away line, said quickly it implies that what he is reading (if he is reading that is and not just fucking with Polonius, which as the audience we know he is) has no meaning whatsoever – it’s just fluff, something he is distracting himself with. Other ways to interpret it might be to say it in such a way as to make Polonius confused or stupid.
Words, (said as though he were stating the obvious) words, (pointing to the page to show that yes there are indeed words on the page), words. (and lastly as though to say, ‘well if you don’t get it there’s no use explaining it to you’).
We send a lot of emails and texts these days and there seems to be a lot of this type of confusion going on. I’m sure it’s always been this way, but in an age where 140 characters blasted out across the interwebs contains words that are read by millions, its easy to misread tone and intent.
I do have to wonder why we are wired this way. Other animals communications seems pretty cut and dried – the intent is pretty easy to read for the most part. But for humans? Just getting through a conversation at the checkout aisle can lead to confusion or hostility. All because we have the ability to shade our words with tone and intent.
I wonder if the transcendence that is part of the zeitgeist in sci-fi and spec fiction these days, will really just be about a complete and utter understanding of words and intent.
As a writer, choosing the right word can be agonizing. You want your meaning to come across, and you want to do it in a way that engages and interests the reader. You don’t want them to read it and then, scratch their head and re-read it. And re-read it before finally getting that “ah that’s what they mean‘ thought or worse the ‘well, I just don’t get it‘ thought.
Words, man, words. Words.