I think the rain dripping off the awnings at home puts me in a philosophical mood. It’s been a very wet weekend; the end of a month that has been in many ways edgy and distracting. I want to settle down again. And this morning I am thinking about…words.
I am on Twitter a lot – every day – and we tweeters only have 140 characters in which to express ourselves. Therefore, we must choose our words carefully. When we actually use a word as if we were talking out loud, we sometimes run into trouble. For example, I was reprimanded by some tweeps recently for using the word “thugs” to describe a group of aggressive miscreants (including police officers) who nearly ran my husband off the road, while hurling abuse – en route to yet another political rally. They were breaking the law; so I thought my use of the word entirely appropriate. I was told the word had “connotations” and that it was “classist” (well, I know of quite a few uptown thugs, too, but that’s another matter). I was clearly being too judgmental, in some people’s eyes. But then, I do tend to judge people who break the law. (Pun intended).
I have also been puzzling over why a word such as “partisan” – which I also had a discussion about recently – should be a matter of debate. I was using it in a common context in Jamaica, referring to political sympathies. Simple. Yet, Jamaicans have a way of latching on to a word and insisting on a definition. It’s set in stone. University graduates do this, too, imposing on you their definition of words that they learned while doing sociology or political science (the University of the West Indies has turned out a hell of a lot of social scientists over the years, and now they are all busy telling us what words really mean). How people actually use those words in real life hardly seems important to them. This is part of a pattern. I remember reading essay competition entries from high school students that regularly began with: “The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of X is…” This approach pervades the Jamaican education system, which (and I must choose my words with care, again) I find rigid and stultifying. Many students still learn everything by heart, and make a virtue of it. To me, that is not education.
But then, perhaps it’s because of my own educational background.
Until the age of eleven, my siblings and I attended a rather unusual school based on the Fröbel (Froebel) philosophy; Friedrich Fröbel is known as the “founder of kindergarten.” Here is a quote from him; I don’t think many Jamaican teachers would get this. Only some educators would understand this one either: “The child-soul is an ever-bubbling fountain in the world of humanity.” Mr. Fröbel again. Suffice it to say that life at Froebel School was the extreme opposite of the Jamaican educational experience. It was playing with objects, learning the sense that they made to us, that came first. Words came later.
The funny thing is that as I grew up I became fascinated with words – and ended up a linguist, myself. I studied French from an early age (yes, at Froebel school), then German until age twenty or so; spent considerable amounts of time in those countries; and was always absorbed by English Language. Then I did French and German for my Oxford entrance examination, where I went on to do Oriental Studies (Japanese primarily, with a paper in Mandarin Chinese, and with lots of literature thrown in – in the original, not translation of course, which is always a thousand times better). My French is the only language I have really maintained – the others are rusty – but languages never really leave you. I only wish I had learned Spanish, but I have picked up a bit here and there. Words are wonderful.
So, the point I am trying to make is this: while dictionaries are wonderful (and I used to bury myself in them) – words evolve. Every time we open our mouth to speak, or tweet on our phone, or write a piece like this, we are using words in a different way. Words are tools – living tools. They cannot be put in a box. In Japanese, for example, there are hundreds of words describing colors; it’s amazingly subtle and complex. Japanese also has a whole range of “new” color words. This is what makes language so fascinating – at least, to me.
Oh, in Jamaica there is also something called “throwing words” – an expression I love. It means talking out loud about something or someone (generally in a disparaging way) and hoping that the person or people that the comments are directed at is listening. It is literally throwing the words over a fence, where the neighbor on the other side might hear! Jamaicans do this all the time on social media; especially on Twitter, where with 140 characters one can be short and very pointed. It’s also called “throwing shade.“ The perpetrator usually puts out a broad statement like: “Some people are so mean and ignorant” – and lets it sink in. Who the cap fits… I am often tempted to do it, but try to avoid it. Be direct, for heaven’s sake!
In my view, a word has a thousand different meanings (or “connotations”) depending on how it is used and in what context. Which takes me back to the thugs. The word, by the way, originates in India. Thugs were assassins and robbers – followers of that rather violent god Kali. They used to go around strangling people; not the kind of person you want to bump into in an alley on a dark night.
By describing the political supporters as thugs, I was referring to their threatening and lawless behavior. I recognize that these days it has taken on a more positive meaning in some societies. The Urban Dictionary describes a modern-day thug, thus: “As Tupac defined it, a thug is someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug. and the life they are living is the thug life. A thug is NOT a gangster.” Which just goes to prove my point – that words evolve. I was using the word from my own personal perspective – an outdated one perhaps, but for me still valid.
I am not by any means suggesting that words should be used carelessly, or to deliberately hurt or insult. Just, please don’t put words in a box. Perhaps we could try thinking outside the box – to coin a dreadful cliché.
You know what I mean… don’t you?