The Right Word?

Fireflies in, and outside of, a bottle

One of the worst things about writing is striving to capture with words the ineffable ephemera of a truly good life. There are times when naming a thing destroys it. Being familiar with both the phrase ”le mot juste,” and the tradition it represents, I nonetheless find myself swayed by the concept of linguistic relativism, which makes me doubt whether any two people actually hear the same word the same way, especially when phenomena or ideas don’t yield to a simple definition.

I also recognize the cultural fiction which allows verbal fluency to masquerade as intelligence. Language skill makes one a good labeler. It is to words and concepts what a young child’s mason jars with hole-punched-lids is to insects and reptiles. Our cultural institutions promote the idea that a thing is real only if it can be placed in a jar of words. We kid ourselves into thinking the better the description, the more real. But a bug in a jar isn’t the same as a bug in the wild, no matter how much grass you pack in.

So what if it is the other way around? What if the more bounded a thing becomes by the straight-jacket of having been defined and classified, the less the thing IS, in its real essence?

I’ve found the surest way to defile the most precious experiences of life is with hyper-verbal attempts to describe and label them. Saying too much is as bad as saying too little. It is sandpaper that dulls the shine of the truly sublime. Then you’re left only with the memories of what you called it, how you described it, the stories you tell about it, and not the thing itself. This is a kind of curse.

Our certainties, clothed in words, are the worst of us, not the best of us. It were much better for us to leave some things undefined, pure, whole, unencumbered by the clumsiness and inadequacies of language. This is an inconvenient, uncomfortable truth.

Sometimes, a smile, and an ”Aaaahhhhh,” is the best that can be said.

Scroll to Top