Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Matter of Words

It all comes down to words. Without words, there would be no language. Without language, there would be no civilization. Of all the things that set Man apart from every other creature on earth, it is words. They are infinitely malleable and, depending upon how they are put together to form thoughts and ideas, can be the equivalent of water vapor or steel. They can move us to anger, fear, or pride. They can lift us above ourselves or they can break our hearts.

All my life I’ve loved words. My mother began reading stories to me when I was very young, and would play "dictionary" with me...a game which involved opening the dictionary at random, close our eyes and point to a word, and see if we knew what it meant. (The dictionary, in fact, contains the building blocks of every book ever written, of every thought ever spoken or put on paper. Were I ever to be stranded on a desert island with only one book, I think I'd choose the dictionary.)

And yet, for all my love of words, for being a writer for whom words are my stock in trade, I so often find myself totally unable to say what I want to say in the way I want to say it. I was an English major in college, yet my knowledge of the rules of grammar is shameful at best. It is one of my standard "lines" that I would not know a predicate nominative if I saw one. Yet I somehow manage.

I never cease to be amazed at how limited the vocabulary of most people seems to be. With over one million words to chose from and play with, I've read  that the average person's vocabulary is around 5,000 words. And for far too many people, most of those seem to be expletives. Doubt me? Seen a "reality" TV show lately?

I play with words the way a toddler plays with bubbles in the bathtub (simile, anyone?), happily slapping at them with the flats of my hands, splashing water all over the room. I do these blogs, which are in reality nothing much more than a form of mental exercises, more or less--often less--concentrating on a specific theme. I almost never go back over them to present them in a more attractive form than the way they come from my fingers to the monitor in front of me. "Stream of consciousness," I think they'd call it. I just open my mind and let the thoughts flow down through my fingers to the keyboard.

My books are a somewhat different matter. I do take them quite a bit more seriously, and make a concerted effort to tame the rapids of my thoughts and channel them more carefully. And I do try to write well. It's obviously important, in telling a story, to tell it well; to use words in such a way as to catch and hold the reader's attention, and to convey the messages often hidden behind the words.

We are a social species, and we all desperately need to feel we are not alone. Words serve one purpose: to communicate thoughts and ideas to others, and that is why I write. I have no real idea why, but it is vitally important to me to be able to reach out to others...and specifically to form some sort of link between us, even though we may never have met. 

I frequently find metaphors and similes popping into my head as a form of mental shorthand to convey my ideas, such as comparing being a good communicator to being a good cook: it's how you put the ingredients together that makes the difference between being a hash slinger and a gourmet chef. (And using that analogy, I would have to rate myself a sous chef at Denny's.)

Looking back over what I've just written, it seems that my reliance on metaphors is a bit excessive today but, hey, if they work, why not? So I'll close this blog with one more: Words are small campfires around which we all gather for comfort, reassurance, and protection against the darkness of night. Think about it.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (


1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

My mother and I used to play Boggle quite a bit. I think she used to look words up from time to time, though, just in case she could use them in the game. I came home one day and she used the word behoove on me, then insisted she'd used it all the time. She hadn't.

So I started looking up words...