Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where Words Get Their Power

I’ve finally finished Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and I have to admit to being fairly disappointed. Elbow is almost a mythic figure among academics who write about writing, but I found much of the book to be rather vague and, often, contradictory. I also found, almost to an example, that Elbow’s selections of good and bad writing seemed exactly the opposite to me. However, there were some things I liked quite a lot and one of those was Elbow’s discussion about where words get their power. It was something I’d not really thought of before but it made perfect sense to me.

First, in writing, words get their power from the readers, not the writers. Elbow didn’t really stress this point but I believe that’s what he was saying. The word “tiger,” for example, only has power if the reader invests that power in it. But where exactly does the power that the reader invests come from? Here’s where Elbow made me think.

Basically, for Elbow, a word only has power in as much as it is able to evoke an image, experience, or thought about the thing the word represents. If the word “tiger” makes you see a tiger, hear its growl, and fear its hunger, then the word has power. I found myself agreeing absolutely, and this is actually what I’ve been trying to say on my own blog in my posts about “lushness” without being quite able to capture it.

But Elbow goes further, and he took me with him. He suggested that, for children, pretty much all words come imbued with power because of how they learn them.The child acquires the word “dog” from being shown a dog and playing with it. For the child, the “word” dog comes to evoke an image and experience of that particular animal every time it is used. The word itself has something of “dogness” about it. It’s as if the symbol has siphoned off some of the power of the real object. As we get older and more sophisticated, though, the word dog becomes a common rather than a unique experience, and the symbols of “d o g” become less and less about a particular dog and more about a general concept. Eventually, the word stops evoking images and experiences when we hear it, and it loses its power.

Elbow uses the example of curse words and taboo words to illustrate his concept. The word “shit” has power because many people still hear that word and react emotionally to it. It still represents, at least a little bit and for some of us, the material that it names. In a similar way, the word “God” has power for those who are believers. For such folks, the word is treated as if it has some element of “godness” within itself.

I remember very clearly as a child how I decided one day to say a particular curse word. I’d heard others curse and wanted to do it too. It took an intense effort of will to make myself say that word. I actually had to fight with myself to get it out, and once I’d said it I felt absolutely awful. What incredible power that word had for me at that moment. And yet, today, I use the word far too frequently and barely even notice when I do. It’s lost its power, at least for me. That word was “damn.”

I’ve known this truth of Elbow’s for a long time but I never knew how to put it into language. I remember perhaps 30 years ago hearing a rap song that seemed to consist almost entirely of the “F” word. I was angry, not so much at the use of the word, which I’d heard plenty of times, but at its “overuse.” My comment at the time was that songs like this were destroying the power of the word,that once the word came to serve as little more than punctuation it would become useless to writers. I was mad because they were taking away one more word of power from us writers and were just wasting it, like pumping gasoline on the ground or burning money.

The worst offenders these days are in politics, where it seems every minor disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has to be magnified to the point of “Warfare,” and where every opponent is a Nazi, or a Socialist, or an Atheist, or a Jesus Freak, or something else along those lines . All of us who use language, and that means all of us, have a vested interest in maintaining the effectiveness of the words we use. I, for one, am getting tired of the idiots trying to steal the power of my words. I’m rising up against them. I’m saying, right here and right now, leave my words the **** alone.


KeVin K. said...

I remember reading Al Sherman's "Rape of the A.P.E." when it came out. I was in college and was more than a little disappointed that reading about the sexual revolution seemed to be as close as I was going to get.

Sherman had an exercise for taking the power away from words that upset you or triggered an emotional response. His idea was that people stop communicating when they get upset by the vocabulary the other person is using. He believed social taboos gave these words their power and getting rid of taboos was a positive force in both communication and civilization. He used the "f" word as an example. His exercise was to type the word over and over and over again. Fill a page. Fill two. Keep typing the word until it had power over you. (As I recall he illustrated this point by repeating the "f" word 500 times.)

At the time this seemed very insightful, but later I came to realize he had it backwards. Communication is possible because words have power. Anything that diminishes that power hinders authentic communication.

Randy Johnson said...

Good post. Words do lose their power, especially those used too frequently.

It reminded me of the humorous song by Pinkard and Bowden, THE UNIVERSAL ADJECTIVE.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Hyperbole is the word I think of. I remember inventing a particularly all encompassing profane phrase at about thirteen that I repeated endlessly to myself. I am still saying it.

Lauren said...

I've read articles about how saying a taboo word to other members in the group cements you (ie...swearing in the military). Prayers have a similar nature. It is interesting the philosophical power words have over people. I'm going to be pondering this all day now :) Interesting. said...

...Seems to depend on a particular language.

In Russian, the word for thunder is grom--certainly evocative of thurderclap.

In English, it's thunder, which, seems to strip the real phenomenon of its power.
The word for death in Russian (and Yiddish) is schmiert--again somehow scary and evocative to the reader.
Engish, though very rich, often has nouns that are more like jam labels rather than the anomapoteia of the Indo-Europea kaguages.
Take Shrek--before the cartoon movies.
Or take the German word for super-bazooka, Panzerschrek...Yikes!

Charles Gramlich said...

KeVin K., Glad I haven’t read Sherman. Thanks for tipping me off about him. I’ll have to have a look see. I agree, anything that removes a word’s power handicaps the speakers. It’s much of what was happening in the book 1984. Taking away the meaning of words.

Randy Johnson, I don’t recognize that song’s title but may have heard it. I wonder if it’s on You Tube. I’ll have a look.

pattinase (abbott), that’s kind of cool. I Made up some curses too and I remember them, though I don’t say them very often. Hyperbole really is irritating me so much in politics these days.

Lauren, I think that’s probably true. The use of the N word among African Americans might illustrate something of that. Good point.

ivan, I like some the German words for things. They seem to get a lot of power from the diaphragm of the speaker. Onomatopoeia is a fascinating topic in its own right. I may have to blog on that at some point.

Heff said...

Peter Elbow ? That sounds PAINFUL !

David J. West said...

Great post Charles.
I definetly have favorite words that convey something particularly powerful for me-and yet I have to acknowledge that they don't always have that power for others.

I have to agree with you on the oversimplification/overuse of some words relegatting them to the lyrical dustbin.

A person who has to use **** for every adjective soon loses my ear.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I never thought of that. But I will now.

David, my thinking about the word "Tiger" in Cornwell's book really brought it home to me. I love good words and yet the fight is endless to save them.

Steve Malley said...

I tend to think about words, like colors, in combination with each other. Never alone.

This post reminded me there's a reason I spend so much time searching for le mot juste. :)

Travis Erwin said...

Great points and lots to ponder hear. Almost muddies the water for me as it now I am left wondering if the words that carry power for me will do the same for my intended audience.

Lana Gramlich said...

Good points, hon. As usual.

Ron Scheer said...

Excellent topic. Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" was worried about this, too. The misuse of words by politicians (like "Nazi") erodes the meaning of those words. Hayakawa said our distaste for certain words comes from mistaking a word for the think itself (e.g. a pig is called a pig because it's such a dirty animal).

Elbow's dog argument doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The word "mother" is going to pack a wallop for a lifetime regardless of how many moms we've known.

I also think it's hard to talk about individual words without talking about context. That's where the skill of the writer comes in - tapping the power of words in different contexts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, that’s one of the things that Elbow also says. He talks about words embedded in context as losing less of their power. I may have to post about that but this post was already going on a bit long.

Travis Erwin, no way to tell completely, although I figure those who are ‘like’ us in some ways have the same power words. It’s part of the gamble of writing, I think.

Lana Gramlich, thanks sweetness.

Ron Scheer, Elbow did talk about context but I just didn’t have enough space in this post to bring up his points. I’ll probably post on that eventually. Some words, like Mother, may be particularly salient and difficult to steal power from. I read that Orwell essay and it’s a good one. I think it may be part of his thinking in 1984 as well.

laughingwolf said...

too often words are overused and become cliche...

did you know men and women, even using the same words, don't mean exactly the same thing?

Rick said...

Fantastic post, Charles. Writers often lose their way by forgetting that the imageric power occurs in the mind of the reader, not the writer. That critical understanding is so often lost during the writing process.

jennifer said...

I completely agree that the power of a word comes from the reader. The words "apple pie" to you, might mean grandma, holidays, and family. To me, it might mean calories and depriving myself of the pleasure. to Grandma, it might mean a lot of work. The power comes from the reader's connection to the word.

The books and stories that mean the most to me - that I would describe as powerful - are the ones that I can make that emotional connection with, regardless of the actual emotion.
Rambling! Sorry.

Have a great weekend Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, language is so subjective. Not only men and women, but each and every man and woman oftentimes.

Rick, it's good to be reminded of it at least every once in a while.

Jennifer, that's the problem in the end, conveying emotion from the writer's brain and words into the reader's.

Cloudia said...

"Sucks or great; no one cares about any other opinion."
Jerry Seinfeld

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral


Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, that's kind of sad.

Anonymous said...

Charles this is a great post. Laurence Sterne captured this in 'Tristram Shandy', probably the first innovative novel when the protagonist debates whether the word 'egg' has the same meaning to two people. Semantics is highly subjective. Alfred Korzybski in 'Science and Sanity' examined the confusion of verbal labels, the signifiers, with the signified, the thing they represent. A child may over identify wiht the sign system it is learning.
You are right, words' power comes largely for the reader's interpretation. A good author knows that. The multiplicity of interprtations any good novel generates is evidence of that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, I'm often amazed at how different such interpretations can be for some of my work from readers. I know what I mean to say, but how that gets across is so varied.

Gaston Studio said...

Fantastic post Charles and I so agree that it's the reader's interpretation that is most important. I love that words evoke images in my own mind; powerful stuff, our minds.

Gaston Studio said...

If you have time, read my post today as I've mentioned you in it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Gaston Studio, I just love words. They have so much power for me and I wonder sometimes why they don't seem to have as much for everyone.

Jonathan Lovelace said...

It's not just words that lose their power with overuse. A lack of capitalization (e. e. cummings) or punctuation used to signify a poem that had something to say; now, because of imitators using that style with no substance, it's a pretty good sign a poem isn't worth a second look. Conventions exist for a reason. I like this passage from Caroline Stevermer's College of Magics, describing a deportment class:

"There's nothing to be good at. It's just an arbitrary set of standards. Why should I waste time learning to point my toes in a way that went out of fashion three hundred years ago? Why shouldn't I set my own fashions?"
"You must form your own fashions in a way which demonstrates that you flout the standards from knowledge, not from ignorance," replied Dame Brachet ... "You will be expected to speak with those of high degree and speak fair to high and low. Your manner will be as vital as your matter, and in some sad cases, your matter will not amount to much. So you had better learn a manner to make up for your other shortcomings."
From the first words, Faris followed this speech with eyes narrowed. "But I may flout the standards?"
"Of course," said Dame Brachet, with some asperity. "What do you think standards are for?"

I don't mind an author or poet who uses strong language, uncommon or archaic words, unusual grammar or punctuation, or some other unconventional style---in moderation---to make a point. But any of these can cause me to dismiss a work half-unread if there isn't any substance and the author obviously violated the conventions because he couldn't be bothered to learn them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jonathan, I generally agree, although I have a weakness for archaic words in particular. Perhaps because I love to read fantasy and historical kinds of things, so I like the words to match. I do not like the laziness that pervades some writers' work, though, the, as you say, didn't bother to learn it folks. I'm also irritated by violating the punctuation conventions since that is all about style rather than substance to me. At least most of the time.

Jodi MacArthur said...

I'm late to the party, but so glad I came. It's neat that you were finally able to nail the point on lushness you've been discussing the last while. I can't help but agree about the conclusion you come too here. The art of story telling is so intricate. Love it.

Liane Spicer said...

Fascinating post, Charles.

To me it's not a question of whether the writer or the reader makes the words powerful, but one of whether the writer manages to create the symbiosis he desires through his choice of words which transmit intended ideas or emotions in particular contexts. The reader filters it all through his individual experience, but the words do indeed have intrinsic power.

"..did you know men and women, even using the same words, don't mean exactly the same thing?"

True, true. I once asked a male friend how his love life was going. His response? "Well, you know the sex isn't all that." I was NOT asking him about sex!

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, thanks for visiting. It felt good to finally get a handle on the concept.

Liane, definitely true about men and women. I just read a book called the Sky is falling where words definitely had intrinsic power to evoke that which they named. An interesting story.