The Weight of Words: Chapter One: The Tool and the Toy
All poets are in love with words, they are the tools and the toys of poetry. What I’m going to try to do is to show how words are used, twisted and mangled, how they’re suited up to carry more of a charge, how they change like a chameleon, how their meanings change, and how they sometimes upset some people, while elating others. First a little story I found about words that I think you’ll all enjoy.
There is an ancient legend, which tells us that when a man first achieved a notable deed he wished to explain to his tribe what he had done. As soon as he began to speak, however, he was smitten with dumbness, he lacked words, and sat down. Then there arose––according to the story––a masterless man, one who had no special virtues, but was affected––that is the phrase––with the magic of the necessary words. He saw, he told, he described the merits of the notable deed in such a fashion, we are assured, that the words became alive and walked up and down to the hearts of all his hearers.
There upon, the tribes seeing that the words were certainly alive, and fearing lest the man with the words would hand them down untrue tales about them to their children, they took and killed him.
But later they saw that the magic was in the words, not the man.
People use words, in speech, in songs, in books, crossword puzzles, and the board game of Scrabble, (where one sometimes makes up words to fit the question or score triple-letter points). Words are for weighing our thoughts, making life and death decisions, in arguing a point of view. In the beginning, before humans were communicating with words, hand motions, body language, grunts etc. had to suffice but eventually we evolved by necessity to develop speech. Waving one’s hands wildly about one’s head, or skedaddling up a tree, was an ineffective way to convey that there’s a saber-toothed tiger behind you, don’t move! Words literally saved lives and informed others as to where to find food and water; which food was edible, which waterhole was safe, which plant would heal an ailment, and further explain whether the stick drawing on the cave wall was an actual experience or a dream or perhaps whimsy or even a premonition. When the need to express love for someone or appreciation for a kindness, a bouquet of flowers without the accompaniment of words could be misinterpreted to mean, “Here’s your salad” or “Go jump in the lake, you stink.”
Words are essential tools. Tool in fact came down to us from the Old English meaning, “That with which one prepares something.” And it’s also useful to know that the word toy is a descendant of the word tool. The advertisers of today have certainly made use of that concept, combining the truth that toys can teach with, “What kind of parent are you if you don’t encourage your little ones to learn and get a head start in life?”
Language evolves through use, and words change meaning over time, for instance cute used to mean, clever or shrewd, then it changed to pretty and fetching, then also came to be used to describe the attractiveness of children or puppies et al. As the users of words found a need to say something on a slant, we got expressions such as “That’s a cute trick but can you do it again,” or “Don’t get cute with me.”
In this chapter about words, I’d like to explore two words that people ripped from the staid dictionary of their day to make the word work harder, to drive their point home. The first word is diss or dis; a word whose origins come to us from the Black-American community. I first encountered diss, which means to disrespect, in San Francisco in the early 1980s. I fell head-over-heels with diss; the way its sound was like the hiss of a snake, and how, in use, there was no ambivalence about the intent of the speaker. Soon I noticed that this new word was printed in newspapers and spoken in movies, radio and television. Even celebrities and politicians started using the word: David Letterman, newsman Peter Jennings, and presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, among others. Diss became legitimate and respected. If someone felt insulted he or she could reply: “What can you expect from him, he disses everybody.”
The second word, dish, is a bit older but has the same bite to it. Dish is first and foremost a concave plate, but Americans of the 1920s started saying things like, “He can dish it out but he can’t take it,” “Let’s dish the dirt on our boss” (that is gossip) or “You slept with him last night? Gimmie the dish, sista”! And yet it could also be used to admire a beautiful woman as in, “She’s a real dish.”
Now word-purist will bristle at what they see as the dumbing down of language or just plain lazy talk. But there are many examples of words they think are sacrosanct today that weren’t always so. Take the word built for instance, while watching a documentary on the dedication of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam, I heard President Franklin Delano Roosevelt say builded in a speech addressing the opening of the dam, and I quote: "...I congratulate you on this dam you have builded....” Back in FDR’s day it was proper English to say builded; built was for the hoi polloi. Another example is the word kilt, which appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and elsewhere. Of course nowadays we say killed; but in New Jersey and New York and surrounds, it is not uncommon to hear something like: “That damn fool almost ran me over with his car and kilt me.”
As you can see, words come and go. The speaker of any language will rock and roll words to make more clear the sense of what they want express to others. Just as
to-day and to-morrow used to be hyphenated and originally meant “on this day” and “at” or “on the morning,” respectively. In the early part of the 20th century it was shortened to “today and tomorrow.”
I’d like you to re-read Kipling’s words in the second paragraph of this chapter. You’ll see that there are words, grammar, and punctuation that are not considered correct today, that is “on this day.”
And so I say to you poets, keep on writing, keep on reading, keep playing with the weight of words.
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi