Words About Thinking About Words

I’ve been having the hardest time writing.  Sometimes writing comes easily and fast, even joyfully.  But honestly, most of the time it’s hard.  And starting is the hardest part.

As I procrastinated about starting the other day, I happily spotted a fascinating NY Times op-ed about writing and language.  It outlined the growing trend — I’ve noticed it most distinctly in ‘reality’ TV – toward nominalization: “a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun.”   You’ve likely heard phrases like, The big reveal – meaning a revelation or revealing, usually of a winner or sometimes of a newly renovated home.  Reveal is normally a verb, but here is used as a noun.  Rather than something a human does, it is transmuted into a thing.  Nominalization is just one small way language can flex as it’s used (or abused).


Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky


Now, as an artist I’m generally all for flexible language.  One of the things that makes English really grand is its flexibility, its size and capacity to move and adjust, to grow with usage and through what is essentially a democratic process in which people vote with their tongues.  Think of T.S. Eliot, who created the descriptors porpentine and wopsical, or of Lewis Carroll’s mimsy borogoves and frumious, frabjous adjectives. To be fair, Carroll even used a noun, gyre, as a verb.   I’m quite fond of making onomatopoetic words and compounds where regular language just won’t do:  skankweed, nastiferous.  I recently used tsk-tsk-tsk’ed as a verb though I doubt it is one, technically.    And I once composed the sentence, Moe…injinx equestrian antependia…

Language is so awesome.  I’m grateful that God chose to work in words.  From the top, God’s language was itself invention:  Light, land, and firmament were created through the pulses of spoken words.   And God’s self-identification was inventive:  YHWH (note the distinct lack of vowels) is self-referent, clever, awesome, and sacred.  Imagine the imagination required to come up with YHWH.

Language brings interior, idea, abstraction to light.  It takes a giant, humming internal tangle, organizes it, and makes it accessible to our own selves as well as to other people.  But language is also about receiving the idea and getting the meaning.  It’s the primary way we enjoy and comprehend others.

Flexing English can put us on our creative toes, or it can devalue words.  Or it can be cheezy and cheapish.  Sometimes – as in ‘reality’ TV – it feels pretentious and overdone.  It seems it’s not an effort to be clever, inventive, or even fun but rather a vapid attempt to sound hip.  Instead of looking forward to a revelation, we are called to “Stay tuned for our big reveal.”  Which is okay, I suppose, but considerably less inventive than YHWH or slithy toves.

It seems to me that Carroll, along with Eliot – and many other writers on a pretty good list – flex language (including nominalization) with an aim toward beauty, meaning, and communication.  I’m not sure I can always say that about ‘reality’ TV.  But I do hope to say that, and see it, in my own work.