“So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.”
~John Locke (1632-1704)
Humans love naming things and experiences. Without language we wouldn’t have stories and without words we wouldn’t have books. But sometimes words can become a cage. Lulu Miller, in her beautifully written memoir, “Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life,” explores some of the restrictions of language, explaining that there is really no such thing as a “fish.” It’s not a scientific term. What might look like a fish could actually be a mammal. She explains it with a metaphor — “It was the dandelion principle! To some people a dandelion might look like a weed, but to others that same plant can be so much more. To an herbalist, it’s a medicine — a way of detoxifying the liver, clearing the skin, and strengthening the eyes. To a painter, it’s a pigment; to a hippie, a crown; a child, a wish. To a butterfly, it’s sustenance; to a bee, a mating bed; to an ant, one point in a vast olfactory atlas.” She says, “I have come to believe that it is our life’s work to tear down this order, to keep tugging at it, trying to unravel it, to set free the organisms trapped underneath. That it is our life’s work to mistrust our measures. Especially those about moral and mental standing. To remember that behind every ruler there is a Ruler. To remember that a category is at best a proxy; at worst, a shackle.”
In “The Dictionary of Lost Words,” a novel by Pip Williams, Esme is surrounded by words as her widowed father helps to create the first Oxford English Dictionary. When she grows older she decides she doesn’t want to marry, but would rather carry on her father’s work. Esme learns that not all words will be included in the dictionary. She “realized that the words most often used to define us [women] were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words — maiden, wife, mother — told the world whether we were virgins or not.” Esme makes the case that some types of words, or words used by some types of people, if not included, would eventually be lost. She collects words from the women she encounters and eventually writes her own dictionary, “Women’s Words.”
In the book “Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language,” Amanda Montell takes an even deeper dive (and a hilariously irreverent one, at times) into how words evolve — especially along the divides of gender and power. She demonstrates how a gender neutral word for genitalia can evolve to mean a “female dog” and finally to a modern meaning of “evil woman.” She says this happens all the time. “According to the Corpus of Historical American English, which contains a massive four hundred million words from the 1810s to the 2000s, most people didn’t start using the word gender to describe human beings until the 1980s.” She tells us that, “One of the sneakiest ways these biases show up is that in our language, in our culture, maleness is seen as the default”
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words to express something in English, but a borrowed word from another language works perfectly. In the beautifully illustrated “Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World,” Yee-Lum Mak explores some very useful words and phrases from around the world. One example is TSUNDOKU (noun, Japanese) – buying books and not reading them; letting them pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands. Language may be imperfect, but where would we be without it?
Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, ca. 1600). Well, maybe. And if you’ve ever experienced the heady smell of a summer rose, then the word alone can bring it to mind. But are Shakespeare’s words as powerful if you haven’t smelled a rose? “The Lost Words: A Spell Book” by Robert Macfarlane and beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, is about words that are disappearing from children’s lives, including words like acorn, bramble and lark. If words disappear from children’s lives, will they eventually disappear from adults’ lives as well? We still have the word “dodo,” but does it still convey the experience of the animal? Or has it become a synonym for loss? Do words have a life of their own — do they live and die?
You can find more books about words and language on display at the library or on this list.