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Weightless: Starving Our Words of Meaning

Written by Torie Hamilton

“And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

This quote comes from the classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Beautiful and intentional words such as Wilde’s have the unique ability of communicating with the human soul and inspiring others to use words with purpose in mind. However, more often than not, such immediate inspiration has become a rare reaction to words in modern culture.

The words themselves are eloquently put, in typical Wilde fashion, but even more striking is the point they make. This quote well describes the beauty of words and the power they hold to give an identity to a feeling, an emotion, an image in a better way than human minds can sometimes process. He even goes so far as to say words hold a form of magic and create a beauty comparable to music.

Wilde fashioned each individual word with great purpose, which tends to be a rare act today. In such a rushed society, words are given less and less power as the importance of wrapping up quick interaction is given more and more preference.

Words in relationship Imagine the everyday passing conversation one has with a friend or acquaintance. Hi, how are you? Good. You? Fine. It is reasonable to assume that the average person has this exact interaction several times a day. The more one has it, the more they are likely to become aware of the hollowness in their own words as “good” and “fine” most often do not honestly describe one’s current status.

“Through the fall of man, we hide. Every culture and subculture, Biola culture, we have found the words that are safe to use and yet still hide,” says Brent Dedmon, communication theories professor.

These safe words create instability in conversation and they present the possible problem of stopping relationships short of progressing to a new level of depth. Humans may not always be capable of assigning a specific word to their feelings; however, intentionality in choosing one’s words for present feelings opens the door to honest communication that is necessary for growth.

“We have to see the value in expressing. And then we have to think carefully about the words to express where we are at,” says Dedmon. “You ask someone how they’re doing and they say the word ‘hurting,’ that word is incredibly important. Even though we could use any word for it, it’s important that that person uses the word ‘hurting’ because that means something significant.”

Furthermore, society selects words that are quick and easy. The emphasis is put on getting one’s point across in the shortest fashion possible rather than on truly communicating one’s meaning. Technology allows society to give into this trend more than ever before with quick texts and messages.

Sarah Anne Dubbeldam, editor in chief of Darling Magazine, deeply values the importance of maintaining personal connection in a rushed and distant society.

“There’s nothing wrong with pausing. We fire off emails and we fire off texts and we fire off answers,” says Dubbeldam. “How can we embrace the power in vulnerability and how can we ask each other really intentional questions? It’s about getting rid of this urgency of this technological world we live in and to slow down.”

The shift in meaning There are a few choice words that make a recurring appearance in current language. For example, awesome. It can describe a wide variety of things but at its foundation, its meaning connotes one’s response to the presence of God. The online Oxford Dictionaries definition reads: “Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Does one even know what it means to stand in awe if the word ‘awesome’ is losing its power from the original meaning?

Nutella is awesome, for example. Do people truly feel awe, even fear, when tasting the chocolate hazelnut goodness? Not to underestimate the power Nutella holds over individuals, but it would appear almost ridiculous to place Nutella and God on an equal level because the same word describes them both. However, while culture has formed and molded awesome into a different adjective than it primarily was, it does not necessarily prevent humans from describing a worthy God.

“If ‘awesome’ doesn’t apply to God because its been diluted, then another word will take its place because of that hunger for describing God in terms that feel somewhat appropriate inasmuch as we can capture language of God’s character,” says Christopher Davidson, associate professor of English.

Another example is love. Love is such a word that is used often and without boundaries in modern culture.

“Love is more today an affection for something that gives you something versus an affection for something that you can serve or sacrifice for. Those words don’t go with love anymore,” says Dubbeldam.

The politically correct definition of love is a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another, most closely applicable to personal relationships. If society is unable to fully understand the politically correct definition, how can it expect to understand the definition of the love of God, or agape? According to Dedmon, there may be more to the picture.

“I wouldn’t say we know less about God. I wouldn’t say we love him any less. I would simply say the words that used to have an incredibly special meaning about God in our culture, do not,” says Dedmon.

Ultimately, through culture change, these words have strayed from their original meaning. However, this does not necessarily mean that society is losing its depth. People continue to feel deeply, but the difficulty lies in putting words to those feelings. As Dedmon emphasized, words are inherently limited and humans as creative beings assign them as symbols for things and concepts. People give meaning to the words; they don’t give meaning to people.

“The connection exists between our understanding of the word and our understanding of the thing it refers to. You are the one, and your culture and the people around you are the ones, who have ascribed meaning to different words,” says Dedmon.

The power remains That being said, words remain incredibly pertinent and powerful. Dubbeldam, a former L.A. model, witnessed firsthand media’s damaging illusions of what constitutes beauty. Her observations started a dream for change and ended with a magazine that makes it its goal to empower women through intentional discussion, encouragement, cultivation of creativity, and the recent “Real Not Retouched” campaign that celebrates natural beauty through the guarantee that none of the model’s skin or bodies have been retouched in the magazine. Darling is a rare company that values the sacredness of words, and the effect that the magazine’s articles have on women is evident.

“In media, there isn’t a lot of love and grace and truth expressed through words to people. There’s a lot of tearing down. We try to really principle everything on a foundation of love,” says Dubbeldam. “Is every single word that’s pouring through this article and this idea that we’re trying to present someone — is it uplifting? We have women in tears that will says things like, ‘I’ve never felt beautiful a day in my life until I read Darling.’”

Because people are the givers of meaning, the call is simple: Be more creative. Be more intentional. Language is a God-given gift for communication and that has to be recognized.

“Our ability to communicate with words is maybe what reflects the image of God most,” says Dedmon.

Because language is a God-given thing, being deliberate with words is a form of praise. Humans hold the power to fully grasp the beauty and the meaning of words. They have the power to be fully intentional in every interaction. Maybe then the insubstantial interactions could grow to relationships of depth and understanding.

“As people, we have to value our words and watch our tongue,” says Dubbeldam. “What can I say right now that will be the most impactful and the most true? How can I use my words to be more of a true person?”

Hope remains for the current generation to return meaning to words. Awareness of word choice and what is conveyed through the specific words is foundational to intentionality. It requires an internal reflection and an acceptance of the ability to change.

“The only way to bring meaning back to words is to back them up through action and is to look at the definition of the words that we are using and that are becoming overused. Personally challenge yourself and your own definition of that word,” says Dubbeldam.

One way to challenge yourself can be found in the practice of handwritten letters. It allows the space, time, and effort for one to give purpose and meaning to the message, just as Wilde did. Oscar Wilde may have written those beautifully articulated words in 1890, a different time and a different culture. However, the art of words is not a lost art. Humans remain creative beings who carry the ability to take words and use them as tools to praise God for who He is and to revel in the beauty of this artfully crafted world.

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