Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Better Wor(L)d


‘…and when sometimes she chose a different word or a new phrase it was like the pressure of a potter’s thumb on clay – changing the thing itself and their knowledge of it…’

I am very sensitive to the way people use words; with their choice of adjectives (to begin with).

I first started noticing this when I entered college.
Everyone around used certain words simply because everyone else was using them; these words were in vogue.
Some exclamations for example – Awesome! Cool! Too good for words!
And then there were the swear words – shit, fuck, damn, so sick…

These were seasonal. They changed with season.
In one particular season, one set of words were in vogue and everybody picked them up from the air like it was common cold and started using them.

Occasionally I would be influenced and start using these words but after a few times of using the word, would give myself a jolt and remind myself to choose my words carefully, to take care while using a word that it’s meaning, purport, power, and intensity be suitable to the occasion.

This habit of using certain words used to be so contagious that everyone would be affected by it and they would use it once in every sentence.
Everything was either ‘cool’ or ‘so sick’, ‘awesome’ or ‘what the fuck’, ‘too good’ or ‘it sucks man’… depending on the season and the then latest fashion.

That’s when I started hating the word ‘cool’ and later I started hating the word ‘awesome’ too. You will not find me using these words even once in a month, nay, a few months.

I feel like an idiot when I roll them around my tongue. I am doing it right now ‘cool!’, ‘awesome!’ and feeling totally unintelligent.

And the way people use superlatives in the most ordinary of circumstances makes me pity - not the fellows using them but the words, for I see them losing their power.

Gorgeous! Superb! Mind Blowing!

Some jerk sitting next to me in a restaurant, sloshed after a drink and some dance in a discotheque, said “O the Vedas! Fuck! They are so awesome man! O Fuck! They are so deep!

And the way they bring the ordinary and the extra ordinary to the same level!
This dog is cool! The cake is cool! My new shoes are cool! These flowers are so cool! What a cool movie!
The Himalayas are cool! This handbag is cool!

Dog, cake, shoes, flowers, movie, Himalayas and handbag, all are on the same level now because some ‘half baked’ with a vocabulary of four words ascribed the same adjective to all of them.

Words have lost their power now. And when you witness something truly extra ordinary, you don’t have a word to describe it – for you have already used and spent all of them for the banalities of everyday existence.
You have used, overused, abused and misused words.

With the proliferation of IT companies, and hence of the American ways, people have taken to using the word ‘great’ in offices too often.
‘When can I have the updated document?’
‘If you can wait for half an hour, it will be great’
And I want to say, ‘Hello! What is so great about it?’ why don’t you just say “In half an hour. That’s perfectly polite.’

Colleague from the next cubicle - “I need that training material from you. If you can mail it to me, it will be great.”
Methinks, “There is nothing great about it. You NEED it. And I am SUPPOSED to send it as part of responsibilities assigned to me, in my job role. And I WILL send it to you”

In fact, people are so used to such language that the one who speaks economically and correctly is frowned upon.
This chicken brained woman whom I used to report to, called me once and asked me if I could be more polite.
“….hmmm… instead of saying ‘Please review this by end of day’, can you say ‘it will be great if you can review this by end of day?’…”
My response, “No I cannot. Because there is nothing great about it. This is not my personal work. It is required for the project. She is expected to review it by end of day. And that’s that.”

You could bitch about people behind them, you could be mean, shrewd, whatever but superficial politeness on the face was a must.

Coming to the matter of accuracy.
How many of us perceive the fine difference between beautiful, pretty, charming, attractive, cute, good looking, smart looking, hot, sexy…?
Or the difference between smart, wise, intelligent, shrewd, sharp, knowledgeable, mature, deep…?

Most of the time, we use any one of the words to describe any other attribute in that category as if these words were synonymous.

When we remark that ‘she is pretty’ or ‘he is intelligent’, are we sure we are using the right word! May be she’s actually ‘beautiful’ and not just pretty. May be he is just ‘shrewd’ and not really ‘intelligent’.

There is also the matter of the ‘weight’ and ‘depth’ of words.
One needs to tell one situation from another considering the difference in their gravity.
For instance, I know, a lot of people these days ‘having a fling’ and ‘going around’, but when I see two mature individuals, whose relationship is of a more noble quality, I prefer to say ‘they are in love’ or ‘they are committed’ and NOT ‘they are going around’.
Even ‘affair’ sounds less solemn to my ears.
A lot of them may be just ‘making-out’ but some of them were ‘sharing intimate moments’.
This pointing out the difference between casual flirtation and true love, between carnal fever and divine trance was just to give you an example.
We find people making such casual references almost everywhere and failing to distinguish between situations differing in gravity. Thanks to the useless notions about fashion that people have.
We think it ‘cool’ to use slang and colloquial in our speech. We seem to have forgotten the correct and proper way of speaking.

Another dimension to the misuse of words is the matter of labels.
Many innocent words, because of the way they have been used and the things they are ‘made to denote’, have become ‘labels’ with ‘connotations’.
Something new, when given that ‘label’ acquires a new dimension, not its own and that could be misleading, even dangerous, because of the previous associations of the label.
And then other labels are coined to achieve vested interests.

One such label, coined in the recent times that outraged me was ‘Saffronization’.
It was coined by certain political parties to dub certain other parties ‘fundamentalist’ and the label was propagated by the media (of course).
Whatever it may stand for, I felt my insides churning when ‘they’ used it on one occasion to describe an effort made to promote Sanskrit.
What sort of blindness could make an Indian forget – regardless of their political agenda, mother tongue, caste – that Sanskrit is not yours or mine but OURS.
And how dangerous this label would prove if it achieved its purpose.
Many of the young would resent Sanskrit! For fear of being associated with a political view, with a political party, for fear of being seen as unfashionable and so on!

We have to beware of labels. Not only while using them but also when others try to use them for us.
“Oh! So you are a ‘communist’ (label!).”
“NO. I believe individuals can be selfish and the STATE has to take care of public welfare and therefore regulate all businesses. And that’s that”

“Are you a collectivist (label) or an individualist (label)?”
“Usually, one is not a pure collectivist or a pure individualist. I mean, one does not have to be. They are like two ends of a spectrum. One can be and one usually is somewhere along this spectrum, closer to one end or the other.”

That was about the CHOICE of words.
Another important matter is the choice of WORDS.

Even if communication be perfected, language is inherently inadequate in its power to express all the finer nuances in our life.
One has to admit the insufficiency of words to represent the entire range or spectrum of human ideas, thoughts and feelings that differ from one another in intensity, depth and power by merely a shade.

How many different colours can the computer tell from one another? My computer configuration says – 255*255*255 = 16581375!
What about the human mind then? Surely, it is more complex than the computer.
So, there must be as many different thoughts, feelings, ideas in our mind... but we do not have so many words in the Oxford dictionary to distinctly represent all of them? No.

Sometimes it is best to leave certain things unclothed in words. We should not insist on coercing all feelings into the limited forms, frames and structures known to us. Because the subtle, when contained in form and structure, that are inherently gross, actually becomes gross. It no longer remains subtle, divine and noble that it is, when put in words. It becomes plain, banal and mundane. Even vulgar or gross.

Contrary to the above condition, there exists the case of censorship.
Certain feelings and thoughts do not permit themselves to become manifest in words.
We dream in a subconscious state because our conscious state acting like guardian does not allow certain thoughts, ideas to become manifest when we are waking, however true they may be.
That happens when these thoughts and feelings are socially unacceptable or unacceptable to our own mind because they defy our very identity, the image we have of ourselves.
Similarly, words, acting like guardians of the society that created them, do not allow certain truths to become manifest. The only way they are allowed to manifest is in the form of denial. If a truth were to manifest as the ‘denial of truth’ or admittance but with guilt, reluctance and shame, is it worth manifesting it in words? Is it not best to leave it in its formless state?

For instance, once in a way you meet a person you feel you have known from another lifetime. There is a bonding, connection which you cannot deny. What is it? Friendship? You know, it is more than that.
Love? The larger context in which the two people are situated may make “love” seem unholy. But then, is it necessary to give it a name, a word, at all?

A friend, a perfect gentleman, once told me about an innocent kiss that transpired between him and a woman he liked, at a time he was already committed to another girl. While I understood the innocence of that moment, someone who doesn’t know him, hearing of the incident in ‘words’ would look at it very differently and think him flirtatious or morally loose.

Concluding this article, I will say the following.
Words are very powerful.
All the same, words are delicate.
Words are the carriers of culture.
Let us appreciate ‘words worth’ and be economical, correct and loving in the way we use them.
Because ‘what you speak is who you are’.
A better word could make a better world.

When I thought about what I wanted to change in the world around me, there were many lofty things that I could choose from… but many of the ‘lofty’ and the ‘high sounding’ somehow fall outside the realm of our immediate everyday personal life, most of them, we deem to rightfully belong to the Government’s agenda.
I thought why not the ‘word’ which made man a man?

‘…and when sometimes she chose a different word or a new phrase it was like the pressure of a potter’s thumb on clay – changing the thing itself and their knowledge of it…’
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This post has been written for the Time to Change contest, hosted by Indiblogger: http://www.facebook.com/sftimetochange

4 comments:

ranj said...

I lost the plot in the last 6 paragraphs...but neverthless your attempt at making a better wor(L)d is appreciated...

Rishi said...

Sowmya,
After long time. Reading this post I had a Deja Vu. Thought this was all covered in some post and then came across your post on 31st Jan 2009 review of Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, you had mentioned your disgust for the word Cool and Awesome the way they are used by people to fill up their poor Vocabs. So here is the article to elaborate that more.

Rishi.

Sammy said...

Nicely written
Well done yaar..cheers for the article :).
Also Check out mine.Give your comment on it.
Are Hijra's(TransGender) not a Human being.?

Sammy said...

Nicely written
Well done yaar..cheers for the article :).
Also Check out mine.Give your comment on it.
Are Hijra's(TransGender) not a Human being.?