language


Heads are usually filled with busy-ness, aren’t they? Interior monologues, ‘must do this’, ‘what about that?’, ‘what does that mean…?’ You know the kind of thing. It’s what Zen Buddhism tries to escape, nirvana being the ultimate empty-head experience, complete here-and-now-ness.

Sometimes it’s just right to accept the calm, and not fight it. I’m looking at a few days with no-one really to be accountable to but myself. And it’s weird, sometimes. Knowing I ‘have to’, ‘must’, ‘need to’ etc etc can be a security blanket. It provides legion excuses for not taking responsibility for your own happiness / contentment. It gives you something to blame for your state of mind. But how ridiculous! Only you can control that….

Let go, be quiet… 😉

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

– Aldous Huxley

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Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.

—C. P. Scott

Orchids, orchards, orchestras….? I sailed past an orchard this afternoon, the new apples blushing rosy, too bitter to bite, holding out their promise. And it has been some months now that I have been meaning to Do Something researchy for myself about the etymological links between orchards and orchids. I knew that the ancient Greek for testicle has given us orchid (orchis / ὄρχις), but perhaps, quite excitingly, orchard might have the same origin: about growing, fertility, swellings, even?

From such a confident stance, it takes only a mind with too much work to avoid to begin to wonder about our other orch- words. So that’s what you’re getting today: sorry. No fancy cod-philosophising, no mooning (metaphorically) at the clouds (hello sky, hello, trees, just like the weedy and despised Fotherington Thomas). No, this is just some utter imp-indulgence; the linguistic equivalent of a horse rolling in mud and hay…

Now, the admirable online etymological dictionary says we get orchard from Old English’s wort (fruit) and geard (garden/yard). There’s also a link to hortus in ancient Greek (horiatiki in modern Gk is the green veg on your plate!) Hmmm; I want testicles (so to speak, and definitely not on my plate). Am I alone in wanting a neat link? Some more hunting reveals that I was so off-course: the lovely orkheisthai is ancient Greek verb ‘to dance’. (Did you know that in modern Italian, ‘to dance’ is ballare, whence we get, I assume – but we can see my forensic linguistics is rubbish – ballet?) An orchesography is a tretise upon dancing; an orchestrion is a mechanical musical instrument, resembling a barrel organ. But, huzzah, kalloo kalay! – orchialgia is testicular pain! Strangely, I don’t feel any better for finding that out.

A far funnier tale comes from a chum of yore. Picture if you will a well-to-do family, playing Trivial Pursuit after dinner.

“What – ” begins mama imperiously, “-was the name of the Roman Emperor who built a wall between England and Scotland?”

“Well,” chime the eager-to-please children, “that’s easy. Hadrian, of course!”

“Oh, no!” exclaims the matriarch as she turns over the card with rather too fast a flourish,  reading the wrong answer but with her very best Greek pronunciation. “It was Testicles!”

PS – thanks to our ovular / orchistular Humpty for the post’s title…no; don’t tempt me. I’m finished. Over. Kaput. Bye. Bye. Going now. Going….

“I’m just a story teller. I have to . . . I have to. I’m very unhappy when I’m not writing. I need to write. I think it’s possibly some kind of psychological balancing mechanism–but that’s not only true for writers . . . anybody. I think that we’re always . . . just a step away from lunacy anyway, and we need something to keep us balanced.” – Doris Lessing, 2001

I am interested in what drives people to write, to paint, sing, express themselves, and especially, particularly for the purposes of this posting, what drives people to communicate with words. And apart from the source of the urge, once it’s rationalised, is it for the communicator, or because they feel that the listeners really might benefit?

I’m tempted to begin with the general – about humans. So let’s.

Essentially, we are all social beings: that is a key part of humankind’s nature. As a species, we can point to story-telling, fairy and folk tales, traditional songs and if you’re of a Jungian bent (and I am), to the common unconscious, evidencing similar symbols and narratives across unconnected cultures: very exciting and something for another time. Developmentally, the urge to communicate is what drives a child to learn to speak. And interestingly (although obvious when you come to think of it), if you are denied the ability to communicate, your mental health will take a fair knocking (solitary confinement is a prison punishment for ‘good’ reasons).

We also, of course have a separate urge to record (IE not necessarily the same as the need to verbalise, but instead a drive based on a desire to record for posterity, perhaps in unusual circumstances – the forward-looking historical urge, if you like.) Just think of the Mass Observation project in the UK in the ’30s-’50s, where trained volunteers kept journals of everyday life, which are now very useful historical sources.

But here, I am more interested in the poet, lyricist, author, the journal or diary-writer and anyone else with one or other form of logghorea (yes, it’s just like diarrhoea, but this is verbal incontinence, not poo).

They are either loggers and crafts-people working with thoughts, inner development and growth, as well as of the quotidien, routine.

In the case of journals, perhaps it’s partly about a fear of forgetting; of ever-living in the present and perhaps making the same mistakes over and over; a fear of not learning from one’s own history. There’s also a desire to have something akin to a photo album: “remember the day when…..?”

With art (poetry, songs, novels, plays etc: blogging is perhaps the overlap between the two), there is more of a stretching-out to others, sharing experiences, capturing their essence with the writer’s own special butterfly net of language, to secure that reaction of, “aha, yes! THAT is what I feel,” in an audience.

I don’t have answers here, only questions. The comment from Doris Lessing, the 88-year old Nobel Laureate, which I quoted above sounds just perfect to me; the idea that writing provides balance in the brain (for her; and as she hints, it’s different strokes for different folks; others use different activities to achieve the same thing).

So, answerless, I want to leave you with another Lessing quote, from an interview she gave to PBS Now in 2003. All and any comments or thoughts would be extremely welcome.

I’m compulsive. And I deeply think that it has to be something very neurotic. And I’m not joking. . . . I don’t have to do anything. Nothing. I can just sit around. But, suddenly it starts, you see. This terrible feeling that I am just wasting my life, I’m useless, I’m no good. Now, it’s a fact that if I spend a day busy as a little kitten, racing around. I do this, I do that. But I haven’t written, so it’s a wasted day, and I’m no good. How do you account for that nonsense?

The signifier is not the signified

– Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

The Imp – when she’s not imping – has a nursery-rhyme name; so, in fact, does her lover. Her sister’s has a Z in it and her father’s siblings’ names almost all (it’s a large clan) sound exciting and Celtic-poetical; and they’re all such gifts. What am I on about?

Ferdinand de Saussure was a very important linguist – he came up with a couple of things. Bear with me. Firstly, separating the synchronic and diachronic elements of (verbal) meaning, ie, the various different meanings a word has right now, as opposed to its etymological, historical development of meaning over time. This observation gradually disabused society (and leafy acedeme) of what’s known as the “etymological fallacy” – the idea that the older version of a word is the “true” one. Just think of Col. Bufton-Tufton (Ret’d.) who writes regularly to The Telegraph along these lines:

Sir

Your correspondent incorrectly used the adjective “sophisticated” to describe the elegant surroundings of the Beefeater’s Harim in Lower Ranja-Ullapool (“What I did in my summer holidays”,30th February).

You must surely be aware that this is the incorrect use of “sophisticated” – unless I failed to register the use of sophistry and a cheating, spoilt and sullied nature in our own tour guide when Mrs Bufton-Tufton and I last soujourned in Lower Ranja-Ullapool.

&cetera…..

Secondly, but linked, he challenged the rarely-acknowledged, but very potent, notion that the word basically IS the thing; that there is some intrinsic link between a word and the thing it represents (respectively, the signifier and the signified).

The idea, hitherto, had been that as everything had been named in the Garden of Eden (ahem), the original name of something must be right, must be intrinsically (and, I suppose, sacredly) linked to that object. He said, simply, that names are completely arbitrary; as are any notional associations you may make between words (passion with rose, to cite another studier of language, Roland Barthes.) – they’re not “real” links. Another signifier (word) would do just as well.

Now, we risk running off into neuro-linguistics (why do cultures / languages choose particular new words to represent certain objects / notions? And have you noticed that the words for Big Philosophical Concepts in English are still linguistically Latinate, ie, they are very little changed – which is usually because they’re not much used….), but we won’t. No. Not today, anyhoo.

The reason I wanted to splash around in this one is that I think we do – no matter what common sense & Ferdie d S tell us – draw a near-superstitious link between a person’s name and that person. Just think how carefully parents choose their children’s names; authors’ their characters’; and perhaps what judgements you make of someone based on their first name before you meet them. We may not mean to, but we do. Think of the children who make up new names for themselves, to match their fantasy of themselves – and the pop stars who make it a reality.

So – even if first names are completely arbitrary, there is something powerfully resonant about them for most of us (ask a practising spell-maker what they think of the power of words…). Could it be that Saussure was not entirely right, then?

What’s in a name? Perhaps more than we dare to dream….

Totally everyone else’s efforts, but so sharable…

The Washington Post annually asks readers to submit alternative meanings to common words.
Here are a few of the winners…

Flabbergasted (adj), appalled over how much weight you have gained.

Abdicate (v), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

Esplanade (v), to attempt an explanation while drunk.

Negligent (adj), describes a condition in which you absent mindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

Gargoyle (n), olive-flavoured mouthwash.

Flatulence (n), emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.

Balderdash (n), a rapidly receding hairline.

Oyster (n), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

Freibeetarianism (n), The belief that, when you die, your soul flies up to the roof and gets stuck there.

Circumvent (n) an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

and my favourite…

Lymph (v), to walk with a lisp.

Sapped and stupid I lie upon the stones and I swoons
The darling little dandelions have done their thing and changed from suns into moons
The dragons roam the shopping malls, I hear they’re gonna eat our guts
If I had the strength I might pick up my sword and make some attempt to resist
.

Absolute genius. Who said this? Check it out.

That man is a bad, black, bleak and belligerent balladeer. I bought the last album when it came out and (blush) thought it wasn’t all that good. At least I’m honest. Obviously, I have matured since then…..Indulge me in another moment of hero-worship:

You race naked through the wilderness
You torment the birds and the bees
You leapt into the abyss, but find
It only goes up to your knees
I move stealthily from tree to tree
I shadow you for hours
I make like I’m a little deer
Grazing on the flowers

Everything is collapsing, dear
All moral sense has gone
It’s just history repeating itself
And babe, you turn me on.

(listen here)

We’re going to hear soon who our next Poet Laureate will be. I like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, but the tradition of tale-telling through rhythm, through performance ain’t with those guys, it’s guys like this. Nominations, anyone?

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office. – Robert Frost

The brain is the most perfect machine. it will do anything you tell it to. In the last few decades, this principle has become a key tenet of motivational psychology, particularly in sport. Muhammad Ali would visualise every moment of his fight months before a bout. He would programme himself – and in some cases, his opponents – to win (or lose in their case) in a particular minute of a particular round. Basketball players who practice mentally (with rigour) do almost as well as those who undertake actual practice – and many times better than those who do no practice.

What’s the point? What we tell our brain, up to and including the sporting extremes of “I will win”, has a very powerful impact on what happens. Or, I should say, on what we do. The problem is that we do not always know what we want. There is (as we sadly often discover as we get older) a conflict between what we think we want and what we actually want. We might , for example, tell ourselves that we really want to have lots of money, fame, a skinny body. And then strive to achieve these. But we might actually want something very different (no shit, Sherlock) – to be the world expert in Hitchcock’s cameo performances, or Grand Theft Auto world champion. Or in four cheese pizza, fags and gin. And then we – and the people we might have made promises to – get disappointed when we’re not achieving what we say we want…

This is all a simple preamble; not to say that I have taken you here under false pretences of course; I just hope that you are enjoying the ride. The Imp’s professional (so-called) expertise is in communications: what we (as individuals in organisations, usually) tell people who use our services or influence our world (customers, patients, residents, neighbours, suppliers, political masters….). And the Imp likes helping organisations to communicate the best they can: openly, honestly, clearly, maturely.

It makes me often stop and think. You end up questioning yourself; your own experiences and as in the rest of life, you’re always learning. Communications links to all kinds of things – socio-linguistics, organisational and individual psychology, media, PR, story-telling, teaching – and leads you to all kinds of observations, one of which I’m (finally) going to share.

You know that moment, well after the event, when you say, “Why on earth did I do that?!” You go back, you trace your steps…ker-ching! Got it! And then next time, you might watch your forward steps more carefully, try not to do the same thing again, right? And this time, you might be questioning your own motivations, pick, pick, pick: Are you being honest to yourself? Are you self-deluding?

It can be annoying behaviour, but on the whole, it’s pretty healthy and self-aware, as long as it’s balanced. But as a practice, it’s not all that common, apparently, especially at work. Think about the last time you said yes or no a bit too quickly. Was it because you had another agenda that only part of your brain would acknowledge? Was there a niggle? That you chose to ignore, because paying attention to it would tell you what you already knew – that the decision was really about…..

  • if I ask him, he’ll just pick at it, so I’ll go ahead anyway
  • I can’t be bothered to spend another half hour checking this
  • I need to beat her to the bar after work
  • my pride / hard-on- sorry, I mean ego, no, I mean…/ bonus will be at risk if I hesitate…

You get the idea.

Spend some time before the week is out checking your secret voice before saying yes or no (to others or to yourself) & see if you learn something about yourself. I never get feedback on these things, but I’ll do it too, and if anyone feeds back, so will I.

Happy watching your Yeses and Nos (it’s not really about that, but you won’t work it out ’til you give it a go, so I can’t say anything more that is meaningful).

…tli

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