Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Word, According to Humpty Dumpty

In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was with Humpty Dumpty...

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that’s all."

Alice was too puzzled to say anything; so after a minute, Humpty Dumpty began again.

"They’ve a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs: they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!"

"Would you tell me, please," said Alice, "what that means?"

"Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. "I meant by 'impenetrability' that we’ve had enough of that subject and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life."

"That’s a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

"When I make a word do a lot of work like that, said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

~ Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

What's your relationship with words? Do you take charge of them, as Humpty Dumpty did? Or do you trust in their innate wisdom?

It wasn't so much over the words themselves that Humpty Dumpty claimed mastery. It was over rigid definitions. Are you a slave to those definitions? Or are you willing to free yourself to be as creatively playful as was Lewis Carroll?

Whichever, you'll find 50 words and phrases to jump-start your writing on page 40 of The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write.

1 comment:

motherwort said...

When I was in graduate school for the second time, we were given an article to read from R. Lockhart (1983), called "Words as Eggs." Lockhart is a Jungian and in a series of studies that glorified the image often to the detriment of words, Lockhart opened language up again. Words were eggs, full of potential and multiple levels of meaning. We thought of them as static, as meaning pinned down. The right word was the precise word, the pin in the butterfly's wing, exhibit A. But I think the right word is often the word with implications, suggestions, the word that opens up a sentence and a story, that makes the kind of imaginal space where reader and writer can dream. Lockhart quoted just this section.

I'm reading another book called Proust was a Neuroscientist. In this book the author suggests that writers know things it takes science years to catch up with, like Proust's understanding of memory as a construction, Walt Whitman's realization that the soul is embodied, that mind and body are one. I think Lewis Carroll understood a truth about words and language that we forgot, especially in these days of texting and increased technospeak. He predicted a future and offered a path through and beyond it, to another place where words were eggs.

Thanks for this. As I prepare a lecture for college freshman on "Why Write?" I am impassioned and emboldened to preach again the gospel of the word.