Defending Definitions

Words matter to me. They have higher functions as collaborators in sentences, which in turn collaborate to form poetry and prose, without which our emotions, stories and experiences would stay imprisoned in subjectivity.But these higher functions aside, words are treasures all on their own. I like getting new ones, like “irenic”, “oneiric” and “emetic.” (I like words that end in -ic.) I like how they bud into my thought, sometimes uninvited: while I’m showering, drinking or just waking up, and drag in cloying histories. This word I got from that girl, who used it in every essay she wrote. I liked it because I liked her. That word I got in an elementary vocabulary exercise, but stuck to me because I knew its etymological origins.

To be radical, for instance, isn’t just to be extreme--that’s comparatively dull. Consider and absorb that the root of “radical” is radix, the Latin word for root, and then call someone a radical. She’s not just some loose cannon or a live wire; she’s defending an idea down to its very roots. So the gruesome appendage at the end of a bean is a radicle, the little root of the bean. And the symbol enclosing a square root operation--that’s a radical too. Then, most ticklish of all, a humble word like “radish” is defamiliarized and reintroduced as the fuzzy cousin of the former radix-relatives. Words, like “swallow” and “star”, have shapes and sounds underlying their meanings. 

I’m not a synesthete, I just like to treat words like nascent people, with valuable histories, physical and poetic qualities.  If you greet all words in this semi-anthropomorphic way, you start to nurture a private awareness for the bright, hidden strands in even the most prosaic blocks of language. At some point this queer hobby stops being a hobby as it insidiously (from insidium, ‘ambush’) works its way into your daily identity. So it’s no surprise that I was disappointed, bugged, and a little insulted when in 2010 a young lady--on whom I’d lately trained my teenage eye--reacted with a four foot-long stare after I informed her, leaning way in, that the root of the word ‘scintillating’ she’d just used was scintilla, Latin for “spark.” Didn’t that new knowledge beautify every instance of the word she’d ever deployed?

No, it didn’t. She wasn’t a bit startled or impressed. Of all the things that could send a seventeen-year-old into a seventeen year-old-sized existential crisis, this was likely of the rarer sort. So these days, I don’t even bother bringing up the word “quark” to anyone, even though it’s written all over my notes in every typeface I can imagine or emulate. I love that word, but I doubt many people are ready to “get” what we have together. I don’t think, when I say that Emily’s phrase “molten blue” is worth all of Keats and more (fuck your “kisses four”), I’ll gain the sympathetic gestures of many readers.

Except, perhaps, the people who defend definitions. I see this as a practice, somewhat graduated in its sophistication, that resembles features of my own relationship with words. Just as I’m ready to dump tears and hours into viciously defending the singularity of the word “none,” so too will others issue forth vitriolic polemic (more -ic words) in defense of a particular definition of “sport” or “love” or “racism.”

I see people as doing this for two reasons. The first, boring, easy-to-explain reason is just terminological consistency. Conversation carries with it an imperative to its conductors to use words the right way, or the same way, or at best, both. We might say “for the sake of this conversation, “country” will denote a geographical entity, not a political one.” And we might also say, in way of friendly or hostile correction, that “inconceivable” doesn’t mean “very strange or surprising”, but it means instead quite literally “unable to be conceived.” Here, we’re on the same side. All three of us: you, the word, and I. We’ve got the greater goal of getting something across with high precision and low bullshit.

Then what of these people who leap up and go to pieces over verbal custody battles? What other forces are at play? How could it possibly matter so much if golf is a sport and not, by contrast, a “game” or “pastime” so long as golf is golf and golf-players get to play it? “Golf is no sport,” I say, “sport’s the word for things involving teams, dynamics, back-and-forth and violence.” You say that golf requires great concentration, fine skill and sensitivity to physical circumstance. I return that these features make a sport better, but they don’t make something that’s not a sport into one.

These types of argument are oddly and hopelessly provocative, and the evidence is that people take them up with passion all the time about a range of topics: art, marriage, science and more. The positions we each take rarely find their grounding before we begin to defend them; and we defend them as if they were rooted in adamantine, and not, as the case often is, soggy soil.

“Oral tradition can’t be literature, Ms. Popper!” I bleated to my junior English teacher. “Literature is made out of letters; it’s right there in the word! You can teach me oral tradition, but don’t call it literature, or I will object!”

Or, to hoist an example up from the oeuvre of the late George Carlin, “tragedy” isn’t just when something bad happens. Tragic is a rich, ancient literary form incorporating severe error, painful irony and recognition of brutal human truths. Timmy getting flattened by a truck isn’t tragic. It sucks big time, sure, but don’t call it tragedy!

These justifications are woefully flimsy, and they smack of retroactive application. But what should arouse considerably more wonder, however, is how starkly they betray a hidden priority. If, for example, in a discussion about golf or tragedy or literature, what mattered was golf or tragedy or literature, all parties should prefer a unanimous term for the same idea right away. That is, they would start with a common idea in mind, and then settle amicably on the term.

But we do quite the reverse. Though we undertake the charade of a vigorous debate centered on ideas, it’s the term we start with. Our whole contest is really preoccupied with thrusting each of our distinct ideas atop the term’s throne.

The magnificence of this weirdness comes out when we reflect on how frequently the squabbled-over term is one that is notoriously not-well-defined. Everyone knows that art has no ultimate definition; that’s always been true. So anyone who defends a single art-definition’s supremacy is either stupendously ignorant, or is doing something very different.

So when I defend my definition of art, as if it’s the one, true, transcendent definition, what am I really doing?  I’m throwing all my weight behind something deeply integrated into a word I love, because I love it. I’m posting myself as a soldier at the borderline (‘definition,’ from fines, border or boundary).

Maybe this idea I’m staging here seems obvious, that we sometimes prize a word’s definition disproportionately in a debate, since we want to make a personal power-play or a fortify something deep in our identity. But my idea is just a much finer point blown up: for I believe that, whether we know it our not, just deploying (from deplicare, to unfold, but carrying also a military sense, just as a soldier deployed into battle will be taken out of the security of the fold) a word, any word, represents a tiny act of love-force.

As I speak language to you, no matter how soft or bristled, electric or mundane, I am always coaxing (and when I’m speaking well, coercing) you to speak my language, to recognize the borders and bridges I draw in the world of words. Words are the air and earth of my home, and I defend them wholly: tone, texture and definition.