Saturday, August 09, 2008

The alchemy and science of words

Words are magic. I am not just talking about Abracadabra, Open Sesame, or Expelliarmus. Words have magic in them. Creating words by calling out one letter at a time is called s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g, spelling. Which sounds remarkably like what witches of the west, and any other direction, have been doing for years: casting a spell.
Stephen Pinker is a Harvard professor and the author of books about language and how people approach it. In his book “The Stuff of Thought” Mr. Pinker says “… one of the foundations of linguistics is that the pairing between a sound and a meaning is arbitrary, most humans intuitively believe otherwise.” People tend to think words contain some of the essence of what they represent. This idea contributes to the world of dirty words. (And why nobody is supposed to say “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter books.)
When you think of words you shouldn’t say in the presence of your grandmother many of them pertain to…how shall I put this…bodily by-products. It turns out there is a very understandable reason why so many of these words cause discomfort. If a word contains some of the essence of what it represents it follows people want to avoid such terms. The actual “waste” is a likely place for germs and pathogens so people have been hard-wired by evolution to avoid contact with the actual “product”. So, just the words can cause a similar visceral reaction.
There is an organ in the brain which helps with this reaction. The amygdala invests memories with emotion. These little almond shaped do-hickeys light up big time when we peak at people’s brains as they are exposed to emotionally unpleasant images, even words, especially taboo words.
This is part of the brain I, as the father of teenaged girls, need to harness. I would like to make other words push those little amygdala buttons causing a sense of revulsion. Here are a few words I would put on the list: allowance, texting, mini-skirt, backseat, and Victoria’s Secret. I suppose I shouldn’t leave out my ten year old boy. His list of words would include: allowance, Wii, rap music, and more pets.
Mr. Pinker describes how maledicta (fancy Harvard term for curse words) do have a place in our vocabulary. Using them can be cathartic. Walking to the bathroom at two in the morning one invariably finds the missing lego blocks with one’s bare feet. Saying “I do so wish young Ronald would put his toys away properly” does nothing to ease the pain. Whereas, saying words which are easily recognized by stevedores, sailors and stand-up comics truly helps deal with the throbbing.
So, the next time you find an Indonesian mountain weasel has attached himself to your earlobe using only his incisors and your wife chastises you for letting loose with a stream of maledicta in front of the children, you need to elucidate upon the “rage circuit theory”, which explains the emotional release accomplished by utilizing taboo words (loudly) helps deal with sudden unpleasantness.
Here is another new word I learned: dysphemism. I had heard of euphemism, a word used in place of another more offensive word. People do this all the time. An example would be saying “pig fertilizer” instead of the less socially acceptable “works of Corey Feldman.” Anyway, a dysphemism is a word which is less acceptable purposely used to play up the negative aspects.
There are times it makes no sense to sugar coat something. It is important the audience understands the gravity of the situation. An example of this would be when there is an impending happening of cataclysmic proportions. It would not be right to simply tell possible victims there might be an uncomfortable situation in the offing if in fact they are going to be forced to watch a twelve hour marathon of “Three’s Company” episodes, especially if they are from the Mr. Furley years.
Words have power while sounds do not. Your brain is an amazing contraption. It has instant reactions to sounds which are connected to ideas and pretty much ignores sounds that do not. I can shout “purdel” from the roof tops and even though it sounds like a word it will illicit no other reaction than mild puzzlement from people hearing me. But on the other hand, if I go to the roof and yell “melon baller” I will illicit major puzzlement from people wondering why I am teetering on the edge of a building crying out the name of a handy kitchen implement.


Razvan said...

If you would shout "purdel" from a building's rooftop, I would ask you the reason of shouting my (sur)name in vane. Also some canadian would do that too.

Chris said...

I do hope using your name in vain does not damn me to some level of Purdel hell. If so I definitely beg your forgiveness.