I sell used tractor-trailers for a living. Often, I can sell trailers to my customers via photos that a seller forwards to me and I never have to leave my desk or dirty my hands. Sometimes, if the trailers are near enough, I go inspect them and take my own marketing photos. There are times I’ve inspected a unit “in the flesh”, and even done a write-up of its flaws, blemishes, and strong points; and then I get home to my computer and pull up the photos, and they don’t do justice to the trailer, or, on a more regular basis, they look better than the actual piece of equipment they visually represent.
Words are like that. They are oral or written abstractions of actual ideas, or of real world things, events, people, and places. Words are symbolic only and are not the thing described. Sometimes the words used are better than the actual thing (that would be descriptive of most advertising hype; which is short for hyperbole, by the way). Other times, the words don’t do the thing justice. Take the phrase, “What a beautiful sunset,” to convey the sight of a panoramic skyscape of surreal colors and lights so intense it can almost be tasted.
A common phrase you hear is: “Words mean things.” And this is without a doubt true. But what exactly do words mean? A skillful rhetorician (or thirteen-year-old drama queen) can torture words so that they become the literary equivalent of abstract painting compared to “real life?” On the other hand, Hemingway wrote in short, simple five word sentences and painted masterpieces his readers can vividly see and feel. In my attempt to sound intelligent and articulate, does my use of polysyllabic words in sentences cobbled together with commas and semi-colons conceal the “real thing” thing from my readers?
When I write, the whole point of the exercise is to strive to find the words and phrases that reveal the essence of whatever it is I’m narrating. I am sometimes frustrated that there are no better choices to describe a particular event or emotion. (Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word “skyscape” I used a couple of paragraphs above, for instance) I can imagine how aggravating this is for a genuine wordsmith or poet! I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising since it is obvious that words, whether oral or written, evolved sequentially after the thing or idea for which they were created to represent. Trees existed way before the word “tree”, or “arbre”, or even before the letters were first scratched out that are needed to craft these written words together…
The specialist, it is said, uses language that confuses, rather than enlightens, his hearers. The doctor’s use of jargon, for instance, creates a fog of mystification between the unwashed layman and the highly-trained-and-rigorously-educated physician that is himself. Thus a bruise becomes a subdural contusion exhibiting epidural edema. For fuck’s sake, it’s a bruise with some swelling, alright!? Other doctor’s may understand, but to the patient he is speaking in tongues. As St. Paul so eloquently said, “Unless the trumpet sounds a clear tone, who will prepare himself for battle?” The patient hearing the above diagnosis may think he’s facing an amputation when all he really needs to do is hold a bag of frozen peas on his injury.
A shared language, employed thoughtfully, is the most common framework we have for building understanding, establishing relationships, and convening cooperation…and vice versa, its misuse can create chasms of separation. I want to use words that capture the subject in the clearest most universal light. I want my word pictures to look like the real trailers, to the best of my ability. I want to engage my reader’s mind with my own to the degree that he never has to “leave his desk and dirty his hands” to figure out what the hell it is I’m trying to say. Such a goal will be worth keeping in mind as I continue to record my thoughts for whomever may eventually read them.