“Words are not magical,” one professor said, waving her hand to indicate the empty space in the center of the ring of chairs. “When I say ‘table,’ no table appears.”
In her attempts to steer us away from the metaphysical and romantic views of language and ground literary theory and discussion in the relatively more scientific and pragmatic language of structuralism, she inadvertently convinced me that words were magical. For a table did appear.
Like my professor, I consider myself a structuralist. I agree that words consist of a sign and a signified — a set of sounds (or letters) that represent a concept. The concept is not the thing itself. A table is only a table if you have the word for it. If you are a termite or an elephant, such the thing is dinner or an obstacle. The concept of “table” as a place where humans sit and eat is a human concept that is only shared by some animals who know our habits well, like cats and dogs and pigeons.
If a table is a concept and not an object, then “table” did materialize when she said the word. In fact, many tables appeared. Everyone in the room imagined a table. Mine was heavy carved oak. Words are magic.
Consider the power of words like “faggot,” “fucker,” and “friend.” These words not only comment on social interactions; they alter and establish social role. Think of the power a word like “feminist” can have, especially when used by a man (like me) to refer to himself. The word “freedom” has mobilized colonies to fight for independence and inspired vast social movements, but the word has also been used to hide its loss. When George W. Bush used the word to justify wiretaps, invasive searches at airports, and an illegal prison in Guatanamo Bay, he was utilizing the word to make citizens feel they were gaining freedom. Relatively few people objected. The word mattered more than the reality.
When we change words like “fireman” to “fire fighter,” we acknowledge the power of the word. When a woman goes to apply for the job of “fireman,” she will not fit the description and so it will be much harder to get the job than if the word is “firefighter.” As I wrote in the post, “Penetrate the Power of Words: Defining Sex,” a word like “penetration” makes sex something a man does and a woman passively receives. If the word were “engulfment,” women could be one top in bed, pick up men in bars, and more easily rise to the top levels of business and government.
I would not go to a doctor who did not believe in the power of words. If one pointed at my belly and said, “There is something wrong with your gut,” I would find another doctor. How do you handle “something wrong with your gut”? Do you wrap hot rocks in a wet towel and hold them to your belly, swallow a laxative, or cut something out? Better if the doctor said, “You have pancreatic cancer,” however bad the news might be, for then the course of treatment would be clear. The most important step in medical treatment is the naming of the disease. If the doctor gets the name wrong — as sometimes happens — the treatment will fail.
Face to face with a service operator, we can point to the thing in the center of the washing machine and say, “That thingy’s broken,” but if we are writing an email to the company about the warranty, it is much easier to know it is called “an agitator.” We can even order a replacement.
What do you call the object on the right? Teaching a class about specific wording, I pointed it out and asked students, “What is it?” “A desk chair,” they said, but if you Google “desk chair,” you will find ergonomical office chairs. A “student desk” may seem to be a good alternative, but it also has many meanings, one of which would be a separate desk that would open on top, like the ones I had in elementary school. What is this familiar object called? It doesn’t matter much if you just have to use one, but if you have to order them or sell them, then the name matters a great deal. Money can be lost and business can fail to materialize.
Students naturally expected me to tell them the right name after I asked the question. I confessed that I had trapped myself. I didn’t know what it was called, but I promised to do some research. I found much confusion online, but the best description seemed, “A student chair with a one-arm writing tablet.” Not very catchy maybe, but easier to sell if you are a business person and easier to buy if you are a school administrator.
To know a person’s name is to have power over them: you can friend them on Facebook, ask them out for a date, or turn them in to the police. Nicknames and pen-names have the same power. Much easier for the police to find someone known as “Twitch,” than a guy with a squint and shaky hands. Much simpler to deride a writer for falsehood known as “J.T. Leroy,” than someone known as “Anonymous.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” meaning that language allows us to know about certain things and to think about them. When we lack a word for something, it may not even exist as part of consciousness. When we learn a new word, such as “serendipity,” then serendipity serendipitously appears.
As a child, I was told to use the magic word. While “please” may not always get you what you want, it does help. As a teacher, I am much more likely to accept a late paper if a student tells me, “Please give me an extra day,” rather than, “Just let me turn the thing next week.”
Words are magic. Words are powerful. So use them carefully . . . please!
(Some parts of this post have appeared in somewhat different form in my book Narrative Madness, which you can get from Amazon or at narrativemadness.com. The rest comes from my notes for a class I gave today.)