By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
The acquisition of words is remarkable to behold. Lately, I have been in the happy company of one incredibly curious and eager new reader and learner. A few days back, he asked what “superstition” meant. I suggested we look it up, because he enjoys looking up words (is this a great kid, or what?) He read the definition aloud, after which I provided relevant examples to help him understand more fully. I taught him how superstitions include “knocking on wood” when hoping for a reprieve, and throwing salt over a left shoulder was thought to stave off evil spirits. His pragmatic father added the insight that “superstition” is nonsense, which is also true, and the word means much more. One word can encompass an awfully long lesson.
The tension between abstract ideas and concrete specifics permeates the nature of words, communication, meaning, connection. The tremendous complexities of words and diction were a recent topic in NPR’s piece, “The Magic of Words.” The intangible quality of ideas when compared to the tangibility of specific examples I typically associate with the duality of experiences: intellectual (or cerebral) and visceral (or physiological), two facets of being, developed and augmented by and through words.
The instability of definition inherent in abstractions practically demands elaboration, clarification, qualification. I start here, encouraging a balance of abstract ideas and concrete example in my writing and writing classes, believing that the best writing creates equilibrium between these impulses. Conveniently, thesis statements and topic sentences tend to be populated by ideas, appropriate space for abstract words and concepts. Then the rest of the paragraph can be “fleshed out” with concrete, specific, tangible examples. I could stay in this territory for weeks, navigating the nuance of implication, the complexities of denotation and connotation. The private, local, regional, national, and global meanings; the notion of words as living things, evolving in content and purpose: awesome!
I ask my students to create a list of abstractions in order to practice constructing illustrative examples. Since college students yearn to succeed, the abstract idea “success” is a constant companion, one they attempt to embody with a college degree, a high-paying job, a fancy car, a big house. Success invades their days and nights, but will often remain as ethereal as most undiscovered dreams.
Experiences can resist definition. In such moments, I pause and think. As I struggle to describe, I arrive at these words: intense, overwhelming, amazing, all of which are insufficient.
Art can provide new names to call the matter of life. Poetry and song powerfully express love and longing, see Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The multitude universes alive in the eyes of love, only poetry or song can manage to convey.
As a teacher and student of all things literary, I am in the business of grappling with words. I marvel at their power and writhe in frustration at their inefficiencies, and my own.
All our words are as tangible as the light from the stars; still, I am a lover of words.