Thursday, April 27, 2006

Powerful Words

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1918)

I found this quote in a book on word origins that I was reading yesterday. I thought it was a great crystallization of the way I think about language. I always try to get my kids to understand how meaning can often be subjective. When we do vocabulary, they look up words and see that they have multiple definitions. When we talk about imagery, each of them has a personal vision of what the image is communicating. When we read texts from fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago, they encounter words that don't mean today what they meant then. When we talk about the current language that they use, their slang, we talk about how fluid the usages are, how so few of the words stand the test of time, how the meanings get consumed and transformed by popular culture.

So, this quote spoke to me. And where did it come from? A Supreme Court Ruling on the 1913 Income Tax Code, in which part of the case involved the definition of the word "income." An interesting bit of trivia that demonstrates that language is always in a state of flux (or at least subjective obscurity). After all, remember Slick Willy: that depends on what your definition of "is" is.

Enjoy the words.

Oh, hey! Saw a rose breasted grosbeak in the backyard today!


Anonymous said...

What you say is very interesting, Reda. Makes me think you might become a bigtime superstar celebrity teacher man sometime in the very very near future.

I would add that technology impacts the nature and speed of words changing (since technology impacts that in most parts of life, why not words too?). Like the verbs "IMing", "Face-Booked (someone)" and lots of interesting entries at Word Spy (

For example,

critter label n. A wine label that includes a depiction of an animal.
—critter-labeled adj.

Example Citation:
Of course, real wine connoisseurs have walked the earth for many years — as have nonconnoisseurs who find such people to be annoying snobs and who find today's megamart selection to be a big, bewildering taunt. It's one thing to sense that there's a huge spectrum of quality represented on that shelf, but it's something else to make a decision. Perhaps, in light of this, it's no surprise that a new factor has emerged that apparently helps many of us parse the options: the "critter label."
—Rob Walker, "Animal Pragmatism," The New York Times, April 23, 2006

Anon AMVB, she likes the quincunx

ATR said...

I read that article.