About writing

Do Words Mean Anything?

Prologue to ‘Don’t Lose Your Words: Personal Administration for Writers.’

When people say things like, “The Buddhists and Hindus and Christians are all saying the same thing, really,” I wonder if they are deaf, whether they have actually heard or read any of the things any of the groups say, or if they’re having a mental breakdown. The Buddhists say, among other things, that the cow standing beside you could be your great aunt, the Hindus say that everything is actually just one thing, and Jesus says there is only one way to God, i.e., Himself. How can those all be the same thing? 

Unless words have no meaning. I’m doubting that the young woman who said that to me at a writers’ conference recently would take the same approach to three bank tellers each giving a different number for the balance of her bank account. “Oh, $10, $1,000, $1,000,000 – they’re all saying the same thing.” Or three doctors, respectively, telling her she has lung cancer, a broken leg, or shingles – “They’re all saying the same thing.”

It seems to me they’re not. If that were so, the possibility of conversation would vanish. Words would cease to have meaning. No sound you made or collection of marks on a piece of paper or a screen would have any referent. They would be random noises and scribbles.

“Welcome to my morning, welcome to my day. Yes, I’m the one responsible, I made it just this way,” sang John Denver before his untimely death. Did he make that morning that way? Think, for a moment, what it would mean if we were each responsible for the day, for making it just as we chose. In order to have any interaction with another person, that person, or you, would have to have made exactly the inverse day as the other, so you would both be there in each others’ day.

Let’s consider an orchestral performance. What do you consider the probability of one-hundred-twenty-two people spontaneously and simultaneously making their own day in such a way that the melodies and harmonies of a symphony could take place? In fact, the only being who could ever make that claim would have to be divine, subjecting every other being to His will in order to have the people in ‘his day’ behave as He chose – even to hear him sing his narcissistic song. If there were any other people, that is, if they were anything other than imaginary.

In fact, there could actually be only one person in such a world and he’d be singing to himself, clinically unaware of any real reality outside himself. We’d be back to the blue pill and the red pill. Except the person foisting unreality upon him would be himself. And that’s the only possible world that could exist if whatever you said meant the same thing as anything else you might have said.

And yet we applaud such things. We loved John Denver’s song. We tell people who leave their faith saying all faiths are the same, that they are courageous. Trouble is, we can’t live that way. We expect the bank tellers, however many of them there may be, to tell us one account balance. We expect them to be accurate. We expect one diagnosis, even if there are three doctors – unless there are three separate medical issues. But even then, we expect accuracy, we expect all three doctors to come up with the same three diagnoses. We expect their words to refer to real things in the real world that we did not make up. 

Words are a gift. Somewhere in our brains resides a  body of pre-verbal knowledge. When we want to communicate a bit of that to another person, we reach out to our shared store of associations for the sign our culture shares for communicating that bit. ‘Pizza,’ for example: I could say round, cooked, bread dough on the bottom, tomato sauce and cheese on the top. Or I could make motions to bring those images to mind if the person I was interacting with didn’t share my culture’s arbitrary choice of noise or scribble. Then he’d say, if he was a New Yorker, “Oh, you mean pie!” 

If we use words as if they don’t mean anything, as if they all mean the same thing, or as if they mean anything we want, we take away the gift. We’re left with grunts and motions, dicey communication, and a world we can experience but not identify. We’re left without poetry, without literature, without history, without science, without philosophy, without self-examination, without progress. 

Use words carefully and believe what you say. The life of your soul is in those words.

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