Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shape-Shifting Words

Let the Context do the talking, never mind the Words. For about a week now, Brigitte and I have been exploring the deeper meaning of that title above. Words are inherently layered anyway, even in culturally more disciplined times, but nowadays…  

A nice example came this morning in the New York Times, a book review. The book is titled Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. So what is this book about? It is about impulse purchases by women (who obviously can afford them) of low-cost items at places like Kmart, like $7 shoes. It is about finding your closet full of cheap things most of which you’ve never worn. It is about a “malaise” that makes us do this short of shopping. It is about the guilty Social Media that made us do it, about YouTube’s sins for letting people post tempting “haul” videos in which they glory in their heady purchases for nearly nothing. About “craving” connections to our “stuff.” because, somehow, we’ve become “disconnected” with “ourselves.” More importantly yet, we may be doing this to create an “eternal brand of the self.” The review goes on and on, documenting all the ills that weigh down the passive shopper. But suddenly comes the unexpected. The author, Elizabeth Cline, has clearly fought her way back to the chilling surface because, in conclusion, she suggests simply wearing what you already own—and taking up sewing to create the new. Such acts restore, she says, a person’s “agency and self-sufficiency.” Now such words in this context are indeed like being drenched by a bucket of snowy-cold water. Shockingly refreshing. Not all is lost. Agency? Self-sufficiency? These words come from another Order of Reality. Well, about time.

B and I got into shape-shifting words in discussing such concepts as time, space, reality, intention, will, feeling and the like—the hard-to-describe inner things dismissively named qualia by branches of philosophy. But all words are shape-shifters—because we are so incredibly intelligent, quite naturally, even if we’re only, or primarily, Kmart bargain-hunters. When shaken a little, we’ll understand agency and self-sufficiency too. A random sample for that shifting might be cover—but what do I really mean by that word? Is it that fluffy thing above the bed-sheet? Has it got some linkage to agenda, as in “Have we covered that yet?” Does it mean travel—as in “we’ve covered a lot of ground today”? Does it mean camouflage, as in “under cover.” Content—as in “it covers events in Indochina under French colonial rule.” Lots of things. It is a veil, a lid, a cap. It conceals—and it reveals, as in the cover of a book. It’s an image, it’s a function—it even reaches metaphysics: in PD James’ novel, Cover her Face, it also means death.

Context is king. Most ordinary human speech, recorded and then transcribed, sounds like a kind of bubble, broil, and flow—more wildly random than steady (like a down-pour). Some drops are shooting up, some whizzing off to the side, colliding, melting, interrupted, reasserting. Jabber. But we know what it’s about. We know how to understand the words—because we know the context.

Now to conclude. Using that word above, Indochina, brought  back a memory—suitable for “coverage” under the topic of shape-shifting words. Michelle, as a child, studying a map of the world hung on the refrigerator in our kitchen, something she did daily, looked up one afternoon and wondered if there was also an Outdoor China. She couldn’t find it.

1 comment:

  1. Fun reading, as are all your posts on language. Some favorite shape-shifting words of mine include content itself, discretionary, and green.


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