On Writing: Words part 2

When we left off talking about Hamlet in our last column, the Danish prince was speechless. He was also dead, but this latter condition seemed almost irrelevant, since no one knew what it was like to be Hamlet anyway. When he was alive he was never able to tell anyone, and even when he tried, they didn’t get it.

Hamlet and Shakespeare’s other characters use words the way we all do: sometimes for communication, but just as often to obstruct communication: as bluster to hide behind, as sales pitches for trash, as disguises to cover up deception. And, of course, sometimes we simply lie.

(Sounds a lot like American politics, doesn’t it?)

Sometimes the meanings of our words aren’t as important as just saying something, anything. Think of being in an elevator with others and no one’s talking: there’s always that little tension that fills the air until someone speaks. And then everybody else chimes in, and that tension dissipates. Sure, it’s always the same insipid small talk — the weather, the traffic this morning, need another cup of coffee, thank God it’s Friday: you know the drivel.

But it’s not drivel, and it’s only insipid to linguistic puritans. Those words have a meaning, even if that meaning lies only in the act of their being said: in the need to break the tension that arises whenever creatures that talk gather in a small room and don’t.

Like human behavior itself, words are subtle and nuanced things. Shakespeare knew this, and shows us language in all its different shades, all the different ways we use words, the different uses that words can be put to. (That’s why his plays need actors like Richard Burbage and Robert Duvall, and emphatically not like Mel Gibson — actors who can portray all the complexities of human behavior that inform Shakespeare’s words.)

Any given word contains so many different meanings and suggestions that a dictionary cannot possibly identify them all — not just a word’s numerous denotations (its strict dictionary definitions), but all the different connotations (the idiomatic meanings a word acquires in common usage), and all the countless ways a word can be spun in the speaking or stretched in a metaphor or twisted by irony and sarcasm.

And in puns: 18th century poet Samuel Johnson called the pun Shakespeare’s “fatal Cleopatra,” a dangerous attraction Shakespeare could never resist. A lexicographer himself, Johnson knew all the different ways a word can “mean,” but he thought of Shakespeare’s puns as literary flaws and so never bothered to gauge what use Shakespeare makes of them.

Today we see Shakespeare’s puns not as flaws but as characteristic of an incredibly fertile literary mind that ignores formal literary conventions to see all possible ways that language can be used to convey meaning.

And in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s puns run at an all-time high, at least half a dozen varieties of pun and wordplay, all to suggest the complexities and duplicities and ambiguous motivations of human behavior, from Hamlet’s retort that Claudius is more closely related than natural (“more kin than kind”) to his harsh treatment of Ophelia when he teases that she always has sex on her mind (“country matters”).

(It occurs to me just now that Hamlet is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of Ophelia’s entire family: her father, her brother, and herself. He’s really a dangerous acquaintance. One thing I love about this play is that after reading and teaching and writing about it for almost 40 years, I’m still discovering new facets and a new appreciation of its depth. How cool is that?)

To bring this all back to our own writing: This almost unwieldy capacity of words to carry meaning makes it so important that when we write we weigh each word carefully, for all its meanings and all its idiomatic and unidiomatic uses; that we try to see all of a word’s different colors and hues; that we listen to whether a word sounds like other words and hints at other meanings that might complicate or contradict what we’re trying to say.

This is true even of little prepositions like the word “in.” Lately I’ve noticed that bureaucratic writers resist using the word “in.” They prefer the word “within” instead. But there’s a big difference between these two words. When you talk about fishing boats “within the Bering Sea,” you make it sound like they’re at the bottom.

“Within” has a definite idiomatic use — such as when we’re talking about being inside certain boundaries. But writers who use “within” when they simply mean “in” think of themselves too highly. It’s not more sophisticated to use the word “within” when you just mean “in.” It’s a kind of BS intended to make the writer sound more sophisticated but really just sounds stupid.

It’s never enough to grasp a word’s dictionary definition alone. Webster’s is a good place to start, but the dictionary is just a snapshot in time of what a word looked like when it was younger. But just like people, words change over time, and like us they tend to accumulate stuff (pounds, possessions, occasionally wisdom).

The rest is not silence, as Hamlet says. As Shakespeare’s works themselves attest to, words may change but they live on. And that is as true for us as for greats like Shakespeare. Our words have meaning, have impacts on others, take on lives of their own beyond us. That’s why it’s important that we try to write as deliberately — and as ethically — as we can.

And that begins with finding the right word. And finding the right word begins with our being aware of all the different ways that a word carries meaning.

Context, as we say, is everything: the audience we are writing to, the reason we are using a particular word, the words around it, the idiomatic context — all these things contribute to the meaning of any given word and can quickly and easily and sometimes unnoticeably change what a word means.

And in this search for the right word, there’s our rhetorical triumvirate again, those three questions we need to ask continually when we’re writing: who am I writing to? what am I trying to say? and why?

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