Not-so-tender trap

So how does this romancing work? Let’s start with a word, such as, say, “black,” which I happen to be and yet which, objectively, I clearly am not–more like a deep brown (honey brown?), certainly not light brown but not that cast iron skillet black that my brothers and I used to call “blue-black” when we saw someone of that shade (or at that point does it become so absolute that it reaches beyond shading into the realm of utter darkness? Are there shades of black or does it simply cease to become black once gradations enter the mix?). Anyway, I’m BLACK and I’m not black. I’m definitely colored (not be confused with the Spanish “colorado”) since everyone is, with the exception of an albino, but I’m way less African American than, say, Dave Matthews, who was born in Johannesburg. So every time I use the word “black” I can call it out to play, and it, in turn, asks me questions about how I’m using it–and why–that can get me thinking about just who I am, if I allow those thoughts to rise to the surface.

Now, anyone who has been in a romance knows that it has the same effect, if you do it right. If you want to have a romance, you had better know who you are and what you’re about, because if not you’re going to find out, or you’re not going to be in a real romance for very long. Because that other person whom you think, at the beginning, is Really Just Like Me turns out to be very different but kind of not which forces you to ask, “Well, how are we alike, because s/he seemed just like me at the beginning?”

I sometimes, because I enjoy words and because I’m odd that way, play a game called “Words in a Word” where I take a word—purple, let’s say—and I see what other words I can come up with using only the letters in that word: up, pup, pep, purl, pulp, perp, rep, url, you get the idea. This treats the title of the game literally. You can do the same thing figuratively, though, and that gets much more interesting when you mine not the letters from a word but the resonances. So from that exploration of purple you get words like “royal” or “lavish” or “ostentatious” or “Prince” (as in the singer formerly and now once again known as). If I use the word purple, depending on the words I put around it, these other words may echo it. I don’t even have to say them; they just hover in the reader’s mind (or in my mind) and the word I’m using becomes something else.

Language, like Romance, is always a problem. You think you know what’s going on; you think you know what you’re getting yourself into. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, you find yourself committed to something you didn’t anticipate, and both the way forward and the way back are ten kinds of complicated.

The Invisible Persistence of the Pocky-D

I want to say something about where words come from. You see, you don’t have to romance what you own, and we tend to think that we own language; that we control it; that we can make it do our bidding. Much of the struggle we have with words involves wrestling with our difficulty controlling them. If we do, and we think we should, then why is it that so often we aren’t able to? Why can’t we say what we mean or at least get people to understand what we mean when we say what we do say? It shouldn’t be that way. It all should be more straightforward. I think it was John Locke who thought there should be so many words for so many things, no ambiguity, no slipping on connotation, no indirection. You say it and the factuality of what you’ve said should be verifiable, like some form of mathematics. So why doesn’t that happen?

When I admit to myself that I don’t own the words I use, that they aren’t mine (at least not exclusively) then the struggle makes a lot more sense. I have my version of the words I use and what they mean to me, but other people have their versions too. I can argue for my version, assert it, use it in that sense over and over again, but if I expect the rest of the world to capitulate to my vocabulary, I’m going to be sorely disappointed. We learn language by listening, just the way my 2-year-old is learning language, what can be said and what can’t. His private language is fading. “Pocky-d” has given way to the more conventional “popsicle.” But it isn’t really fading, of course. He already has his own associations and connotations and examples and categories. At the zoo the other day, he insisted that the bear we were looking at was just another example of the big cats—tigers—we had viewed earlier. Someday, of course, he’ll realize that they are different animals, but will his association of the two ever really be erased? And so, because we can’t own language, we are forced to woo it if we want to express what we’re trying to express. We must put it in situations where we can coax the meanings that matter to us and make those meanings matter to someone else, which is how, of course, we romance the rest of the world as well.