“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.”
Like Mr. Humpty Dumpty, we all want to be the master of words. The problem is we need words in order to communicate.
Rush Limbaugh wrote a list of 35 Undeniable Truths as part of a newspaper article once. In it he stated: “Words Mean Things”
The highly technical folks that I am most privileged to work with have very strict definitions of terms that can, at times, be pretty unyielding.
Other friends and family that I have been around have been fairly loose with their words (and intended meanings). We all want to be the master of words, but are we?
Several years ago I was at a dinner party with a group of friends. One of the individuals there, an African American lady, arrived a little late and told a tale of being held up with some co-workers, and when she realized the time and where she needed to be, she told them “I be gone with a quickness.” This statement or phrase apparently alarmed the rest of the people at the table (or the majority of them anyway, including the host and hostess), most of them white, although there were also some Asians there as well.
A rather involved discussion on the use of the Queen’s English promptly ensued. Now I should probably add for clarity, that the individual who used the phrase was a highly educated official within the local School System. And she stated that when she was with some friends, she spoke one way, and when she was with other friends, she spoke a different way. The banter went back and forth as to what should be “good” spoken words, and what would be “bad” spoken words. Everyone wanted to be the master of the words.
For the most part I sat there quietly throughout the dinner and enjoyed my meal and listened to the debate. Towards the end of dinner, the hostess turned to me and said “Paul, you’ve been quiet the whole time. What do you think? Was that acceptable speech or not?”
Here I was, put on the spot, in front of everybody at the dinner party. I sat back and thought for a minute, and then (more or less) made the following statement (I’m sure this is paraphrased after so many years):
Words mean things, but they also DO things. And what they do is to convey ideas. They not only mean things, but they transfer that meaning from one individual to other individuals. Words have morphed, transformed, dropped out of use, and been newly invented all throughout history. But as long as the ideas conveyed by the individuals that use them, are understood by the individuals that receive them, then communication takes place and we all have understanding. I understood what (and I named the individual here) meant when she used the phrase.
There was a moment of silence in the room before folks went back to, what was now, a much different conversation. At the end of the evening, when it was time to go, and there were still a number of people at the party, I stood up and said “We be gone with a quickness!” to which everyone laughed and I got a high-five out of the owner of the phrase.
Words do mean things. But we all also want to be the master of the words. And whether we are those that parse every single syllable and use the strictest of dictionary definitions, or we are those that tend to be a little lose and artistic in our speech, the bottom line is that we intend to convey information with those words.
There are some words in use more and more today, that have traditionally been defined as offensive and foul language. I am not quite sure when these words entered into our mainstream conversation and became acceptable for use, but I do know I never agreed to give up the mastery of those words.
If we randomly introduce curse words into our speech, what does that do to our intended communication? Does it not convey the thought that we are always angry, always foul, and always incapable of expressing ourselves coherently and clearly? I believe it does.
There are some words I just will not allow on this site. No matter how well you think they convey your meaning. If there are comments on my blog that contain (at least what traditionally used to be) foul language, I will remove that post.
But as far as today’s communications are concerned, perhaps if we all used a little less offensive language, and at the same time became a little less critical in our hearing, we would see beyond just the words that are used and connect with the intent being conveyed.
When we begin to use less offensive language with one another, and begin to listen a little more carefully to one another, we might find that true communication will begin to take place.
This does not mean we cannot be passionate in our communications. Quite the contrary. We may be very passionate, but at the same time very respectful.
Words. They mean things. AND: They DO things. What do your words do?