We express ourself through language. For linguists to consider words a language, the words must not only be spoken but written and follow a grammar, those rules that people follow when using the words.

Regardless of linguists, whether written, spoken or sung, following rules of grammar or not, words can be astonishingly powerful. They combine to tell stories that transport you across time and space, to Heaven or Hades or Hell or any place in between, real or fantastical, where you can eavesdrop on any manner of conversation between all sorts of creatures. Words can also mislead, misguide, take you to some very dark places of hurt and humiliation, causing irreparable damage to an individual, a group, a country, the planet.

Yet, we trust our words, trust that they will express our inner self or at least our projected self. And we take words for granted, filling our mind, our eyes, and ears, following the signs, reading the propaganda. Yet in our world of 24/7 texting, news, RSS, email, books, magazines, letters, and yes, even personal blogs and websites, to my little mind, words remain somewhat suspect; limited and highly susceptible to those bendy-flexy technologies depending on the originator or user of the word(s).

The fact is, words can fail. They can fail to convey a feeling because not all feelings lend themselves to translation into a word or grouping of words.

There’s help, though. Our language (Canadian-American English) does contain shortcuts in the form of cliches, or song lyrics, poems posters and greeting cards. Cultural, iconic words and phrases that work…sort of. It seems we repeat ourselves a lot, too. Or at least the British do: in English of ALL the words there are to use, about 87,ooo are used more frequently.  The word HOPE is number 534 on the list of most used words.

I suspect that the words we use to describe how we feel is far fewer than 87,000. It’s funny how few of them seem to float by when they are needed most to describe just what we are feeling and what we want a least one other human to truly know. It’s also curious how, having a command of a language, knowing its words and its grammar rules doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to communicate a feeling, or foster mutual understanding. If you don’t believe that, I DOUBLE DARE you to do ONE of following:

1. Write a seven-minute speech for someone you’ve never met (your new boss) that will get the audience to believe caring for someone they do not know — and giving money — is a good thing; OR

2. Go fall in love and describe what you are feeling to someone who either has never been in love, or thinks falling in love is somewhat akin to insanity.  (Which it is, but that’s another topic for another day);  OR

3. Describe that moment in meditation or running or deep interpersonal intimacy when you are transported outside of yourself to someone so that s/he knows what you are talking about.

I DARE you. If you find the words that express precisely what you feel, that captures in totality all that you feel and completely satisfied that you have communicated your sensory and emotional experience, please let me know the combination of words you found.

You see, there are shadowy gangs wandering the many worlds we inhabit that few ever glimpse: users of words, wordlords, word mistresses, shapers of words, wordsmiths, wordsharks, word warriors, word sculptors, word worriers. Artists, angels, devils and thieves. Some with honour, many without. Using a language, using words may be little more than blurting out information. However, information is not communication and informing is not communicating and what you communicate might not be what you intended, no matter how dumbed down, plain-languaged, 1984’d an explanation or group of words might be. (grammar rule broken here)

Words fail, and fail often. Conveying a feeling may be beyond the reach of many words. COnsider that certain pieces of music evoke emotional responses that defy description in words. Certain pieces of visual art. A poem. Walking along and finding yourself at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Seeing a marble sculpture whose texture just begs to be licked. A scene in a play or a film or photograph that takes your breath away. Or makes you ill. The Northern Lights. Seeing the skyline of your city as the plane begins its descent toward land after being away for a while. A sip of delicious wine. Amazing chocolate. Skin. A baby’s laugh. Dogs playing. Cats purring. A sigh. The day your dog discovers snow! That moment of AHA!! Tears, whether friends, family or strangers, and always, always a loved one’s tears. When you find your favourite things changed without letting you know. Finally getting that yoga pose that was impossible two months ago. Knowing that if THIS doesn’t work, THAT will.

When words fail, use colour. Hum. Sing. Dance in the rain. Hug. Cry. Smile. Hold hands.  Howl with the dogs. When words fail, listen to the door of a whole other expression.   And please let me know how it goes.


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ”   – Lewis Carroll


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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