In Re-think I advocate having a Dictionary of Word Origins as your bathroom reading. Not only will this impress the hell out of visitors, it also gives you the opportunity to learn, or re-think, something useful in a few short minutes rather than sedate yourself with Calvin and Hobbes or back copies of Private Eye.
Most of us use language unthinkingly. Unwittingly we pass on the words, phrases, and their attendant meanings without reflecting too much on their older, deeper, or alternative sense. This is a bit like wearing hand-me-down clothes: it's hard to find our own authentic look, particularly when wearing the brand name of another.
We all need to find our authentic voice rather than the faded second-hand version we have imbibed from what we read in the press or hear on television. So let's open the Dictionary and see what comes up, how it can help us re-think both the language we use, and our own relationship to the truth it carries or masks.
Disease is an obvious one to start with. When more usefully read as dis-ease we can take our thinking further and consider what would it be like if we were to introduce more ease into our lives, and even that of our society. If we consider that stress creates or compounds a great deal of sickness in 21st Century life, why not have a Minister for Ease – someone responsible for introducing more ease into, say, our transport systems, working practices, education, and health systems. Otherwise we're 'dissing' the ease that's natural to us. Psychological and physical illnesses are bound to follow.
Or take the word 'barbaric'. When Prime Minister Tony Blair used this adjective to describe the London bombings of July 7, 2005, was he aware that originally this means simply, 'foreign'? A mistake in thinking made more dangerously ironic by the fact that the bombing was performed by British subjects.
When I was researching Re-think, I was interested in how the effect our attention has. What's it like to be really present to what's going on around us? Originally, attention means 'to stretch to', the opposite of the couch potato mentality that soaks up impressions without being active enough to make sense of the messages piped subliminally to our brains.
This insight helps me rally my flagging attention when I'm listening to a radio documentary, or in my work, to the presentation of some speaker who has interesting content but dire presentation skills. If I can inwardly 'stretch' to why and how this is being said, I not only keep myself awake, but am able to snatch a pearl from almost anything.
It doesn't have to be this serious. Sometimes it's just enjoyable and thought-provoking to rediscover the source of words. I live in the university city of Oxford where academics still wear too much brown, tweed, and corduroy for my taste. How charming, then, to be reminded that cord-u-roy means 'the cord of kings'. I wonder how it made this transition from royalty to dowdiness in a few short generations.
Or take a phrase like, 'a trophy wife'. (Aren't there trophy husbands, too?) Elide the word, and you could say it as 'atrophy wife', which immediately explains the cause of the situation.
This fluidity and flexibility of English must make it simply hell to learn the language. A family game we play with our seven-year-old helps to explore the many facets of even the most simple words. You just have to pick a word (or more strictly, a sound) and score points for the number of meanings.
For example, 'poor'. This can be mean, 'not rich' (2 points), 'low standard' (3 points), or can be said as 'pour', which can mean to pour a drink or to pour down with rain (we're up to 5 already), or as 'pore' as in our skin (6… and counting!). As Lewis Carroll observes, in English, words can mean what you want them to mean! But this isn't necessarily the meaning that others hear.
Language and cliché
Clichés do contain truth. It's just that they have been so overused that we respond to them like elevator (I say 'lift') music. They are the songs of the Lotus Eaters, comfortable but lulling us into premature slavery and death of the discriminating mind. In business, it's fashionable to attack and ridicule the clichés of others, though more difficult to realize when we're using them ourselves. Almost every corporate leader has delivered the predictable line that 'people are our greatest resource' as if describing a Damascean breakthrough they have just been illuminated by. It's as if a new species has been discovered in the bowels of the body corporate, rumoured to look and behave a lot like the fabled homo sapiens. This is why I now have it in my speaking contract that if my client says 'people are our greatest asset' (without evidence), I am allowed to leave the room.
In the public sector, I find the most used handy cliches are 'joined up thinking', 'joined up government', 'level playing field', 'delivery', and 'choice'. By applying Barlow's Law of Inverse Relationships I'm convinced there isn't much of this actually going.
It's not hard to parody the ubiquitous management-speak that has infiltrated most areas of society – 'the bottom line', 'prioritising', or to 'double-click', meaning to 'drill down' into more detail. But writer Don Watson in his brilliant book Gobbledygook makes a more profound point. He suggests that people using this kind of language are not only not communicating, but are unhappy. I see it as a sign of not having found our own individual voice. One that's authentic and resonates with who we are.
The resonance of words
Words have two values – meaning and sound, or resonance. The superficial understanding of resonance is onomatopoeia, a word sounding like its meaning. Like 'bang', 'clap,' 'shoot'.
But some cultures, like the ancient Vedic civilization of India, believe that at a deeper level of thought, sound and meaning are synonymous. That, for instance, 'an apple' is the outer manifestation of the sounds that go into it. These theories are not far from modern physic's quantum mechanical views of the world: that all manifest creation can be seen as different fluctuations or vibrations of an underlying field. In the human mind this means that the idea of something and the words we attribute to it are the seeds of all we create. It's a deeper understanding of the Biblical phrase, 'what we sow, so we shall reap.'
In everyday terms we use the language of resonance to describe communications: we are 'in tune', 'on the same wavelength', or 'feeling the vibe'. We even have 'brainwaves'. Speech is highly musical in its rise and fall, pitch, tone, and crescendos. It can be insightful to think what kind of music we are all making because how we 'sound' determines how we make others feel. It's our personality, which comes from the Latin per-sonare, literally to 'sound through'.
As I favour the auditory sense and become very quickly distracted by music – for me it's rarely background noise, almost always in the foreground of my mind – I've taken to thinking about personalities in musical terms. For instance, this person is definitely Easy Listening (and easy to 'tune out'); this one is Jazz, improvisational, and meandering; and another is like the worst of Heavy Metal, 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' as Shakespeare has it.
Of course, it's just as useful to think about the musical form you are currently vibrating with yourself. If I'm irritable, it's Hip Hop; if I'm calm, it's Bach; sad, and it's Sandy Denny. Close relationships can also be thought of in this way. If he wants to be Thin Lizzy and she's sitting still after a hard day and giving off mellow Brahms, there's going to be some dissonance...
Finding your own voice
This is an intuitive way of understanding the 'vibes' you literally give off and receive. A more practical method is to hear your own voice recorded and to feel its resonance and pitch and to analyze your own use of language, registering any verbal 'ticks' or catch phrases. Don't do this for too long, though; the fascination only outweighs the horror for a limited time.
There are different levels of exploring your 'voice'. Outwardly, there's reflecting on the language you use. Finding the hidden or forgotten meaning of words brings your attention to the power of language to clarify or obfuscate. As does the removal of some of those ticks, such as 'at the end of the day', 'you know', or 'as I was saying'. Not to mention the business ones such as 'issues around' trust/ leadership/ the customer/, 'thinking outside the box', 'sharing', or 'going forward'.
A deeper level is the awareness of the musical and emotional effects of your words. We can learn the most here from the spiritual leaders whose language carries the vibrational form of their meaning. In short, those who could use words to change peoples' state of mind. Study the speeches of Mahatma Gandhi for example, as well as listening to the passionate feel of Martin Luther King's sermons.
One effect those great minds had on others was inspiring enthusiasm for their cause. This is no small thing – the word comes to us from the Greek, en-theos. In God.
There's something more profound than expanding our vocabulary - it's understanding the rhythmic power of language. Power to touch or offend, connect or alienate, destroy or create. That's what words are worth.
Originally published: Sun 07 May 2006