Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Word Power

There's a charming scene in J. R. R Tolkien's The Two Towers where hobbits Merry and Pippin encounter the ancient shepherd Treebeard in Fangorn Forest, surprising the prehistoric herder in more ways than one. First off, poor Treebeard has never heard of a hobbit before. "You do not seem to come in any of the old lists," he says. It's a subtle, gentle, and traditional line. Why traditional? Because in the old world and ways of Treebeard, one doesn't learn by poking one's nose around. You learn when you're young from the old lists, lists handed down and seldom added to. That's the way of things.

Second, the prehistoric herder is taken aback when the young hobbits introduce themselves by their real names. Why aren't they careful? Old Bilbo certainly didn't tell fire-breathing Smaug his real name, although he did introduce himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins to Gollum of all people, almost to the detriment of Middle Earth when his name made its way to Sauron. So what's the big deal with a name, or any word for that matter?

It is no small feat to use a word, for to use one is to name a thing and to name a thing is to decide what it is. To name something is to de-fine it, to put ontological limits around it. Naturally just because you name something doesn't mean you are correct in defining it, but for your part you have used what concepts you have to de-termine what it is. Indeed the nominative power is nothing short of the creative   and possessive powers. Regarding names, how sensitive are we about our names.

First names, middle names, last names, nicknames, patronymics, epithets, initials, diminutives, titles, ranks. . . don't ever call someone by the wrong one. All of those nominative associations between people and places, deeds, jobs, countries, and other people are definitive and quite intimate. Consider the awkwardness when someone mispronounces your name, or when a child calls an adult by his given name. Even if we're not sure what something or who someone is, we insist on discussing and speculating until we settle on a name. We just can't abide by an unknown. Accurately or not, we have to name it. Unless we want to avoid it. How deftly we avoid names when we speak ill of people, shifting to pronouns and the passive voice: I hate her and the gun went off.

Finally, consider the fine ways we insult each other, the colorful and crude turns of phrase. Why is invective so satisfying? For much the same reason that all acts of naming are significant: they give you some power, or the impression of power, over a thing. We glory in exercising it and flee from it turned against us. Whether it's disguising the name of a god in a religious text or Catullus obfuscating the details of a romance, we have often sought in anonymity a protection from the invidious.

No, we're not as superstitious today, and how much we value our names may owe more to vanity than fear. Yet without fear, reverence is hard to come by. Recall Latin's revereor for both fearing and revering. We should then, perhaps, cultivate a certain reverence for words, that is, the act of naming, for  as in Treebeard's Old Entish language, "real names tell you the story of the things they belong to." We should try to find those stories in both the words and things. Naming, then, is a thought-ful and active task of studying the essences of things and concepts behind words. Yes, the work exacting, but it might do us some good to be less hasty and more thoughtful. Let us say of our own then, what Treebeard says of his, "It's a lovely language, but it takes a long time to say."

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