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.

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