Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics


“What’s the better human invention: words or music?” Floja Roja’s question in Friday’s “The Daily F Bomb” diary spurred a number of answers. Most people said “words” but didn’t explain why.

Whether written or spoken, why are words so essential to us? Words explain, they shine, they bind us together and tear us apart. They tell the stories of the ages, into the past and into the future.

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning. ~ Maya Angelou

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. ~ Carl Sagan

As noted above by Angelou, meaning may be created by tone of voice. Consider, for example, the ways a person might state “John Boehner is a strong leader.” They may sound earnest; they may sound sarcastic. Their tone of voice lets us know their intent.

The specific platform of delivery can provide information for us, too. If we know a “news” item was published by the Onion, we expect it to be tongue in cheek, even if otherwise it is completely believable.

Words have meaning. And yet, a word in isolation may have little power. Because words can have multiple meanings, and because humans use words imprecisely, context is everything.

Even when we are careful about which words we use, misunderstandings may arise. For example, PadreJM said Sunday, “I picked up a small fan this week…” I was not the only one who initially misunderstood. After all, many of us are fans of Padre. In fact, he was writing about an appliance with rotating blades, intended to provide some relief from the heat while celebrating Mass. Both the context of his other comments about the weather, as well as the rest of his statement, confirmed he was not writing about an admirer.

Words we think of as similar in meaning, in reality may be substantially different. For example, “eager” is not the same as “anxious,” though many people will note they are anxious for some event about which they are happy, not nervous. Again, context is key.

Speaking of the difference between justice and revenge, Ron Nikkel says,

Whenever I speak of justice, even with judges and lawyers, I find it necessary to clarify that the meaning of justice is more than a forensic determination of guilt or innocence, that it is beyond crime and consequence, and that it is not simply fairness and equality and proper procedure. I am trying to become more careful with the words I use because the meanings of words like justice, love, hate, grace, honesty, truth, good, evil and morality are critically important in our world of contemporary tolerance. Words aren’t ours simply to fill a quiet space; or to cast aspersions and insinuate suspicion without sounding negative; or to build sentences and paragraphs that are dense and stupid but sound profound; or to say one thing while meaning quite another. Words are not “just words” unless they are used transparently with integrity, grace and meaning for the common good.

Context is provided by surrounding words and statements. But context also comes from the speaker and our relationship to him or her. “I love you” from a small child is a very different statement than “I love you” from a sweetheart or spouse. Racial epithets sometimes are accepted when used by a member of the race, as we often hear about “the n word.” That word is not acceptable from Paula Deen because the context is wrong.

Written media suffer in their ability to communicate tone, making contextual understanding harder. As my friend Alan B. Craig states in his book “Understanding Virtual Reality” (with William R. Sherman),

Arguably, the experience of reading the book belongs both to the writer-of-words and to the reader, making both coauthors of the experience.

Both the author and the reader contribute to the experience. The author cannot choose, in isolation, the reader’s experience.

Imagine writing something poking fun of a particular hobby, and assuming the reader would experience it as meant, with no harm intended. The reader’s sense of attachment and ownership about that hobby may color their response. Elsewhere I witnessed a reader’s explosive reaction when another blog commenter made fun of Harley Davidson riders. No one else of the dozens of readers registered the same kind of emotional reaction. The reader who did react was a Harley rider who’d had a life-changing crash. His emotional attachment was stronger than the writer could have imagined.

A similar co-authorship of experience happens when we choose to give someone the benefit of the doubt, based on prior contact. The same words that might hurt me from a prickly relative might be tolerated from a close friend. My friend Beth and I have been through a lot together. She knows the best and worst of me. When she has something to say, even when critical, I consider it carefully rather than reacting defensively.

Alternatively, if my experience with someone has been of frequent criticism or correction, I’ll be quick to assume that their expressions are critical or correcting. This is true even if the author believes what they are saying is in jest.

Our words are powerful. As Jodi Picoult has said

words are like nets – we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.

We have a special responsibility to use words carefully in writing, because we are only one author of that experience. We should not assume our words alone are sufficient to define our meaning. Even if the interaction between reader and author is a one-time experience, we need to lead our readers carefully to our intent. If we have longer-term relationships with our readers, we need to consider what they get from us in the larger context. This way they can give us the benefit of the doubt when needed. That helps them as readers, as well as us as authors.


  1. One is on words (“The Story of English in 100 Words” by David Crystal) and one is on aphorisms (“The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

    I’m looking forward to learning more about words and how they shape our perceptions of reality.  

  2. we all choose our own usernames here and at other sites. Those of us who have children (typically) have chosen their names, as well. We do so because of meaning to us and how we choose to represent ourselves or our children to the world.  

  3. Portlaw

    an old expression along the lines of “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Alas, it’s not really true. Missed the discussion of words vs music. Not sure I could answer that!  

  4. …I read this about our brains and how they process each.

    …it can be inferred that music and language may be interpreted and deciphered in similar ways as well as by similar brain structures. This may explain why, in some experiments, it has been found that prenatal exposure to music has produced an acceleration in the development of behaviors related to the acquisition of language (such as babbling). Conversely, damage to areas of the brain involving language may also impair musical interpretation as well as the effects of music on cognition.

    Excellent essay, Melanie. I was surprised how much better it was this morning when I read it than it was last night. I couldn’t imagine when you had edited it and made those improvements to the words. You said it was not changed. !!!

    I guess my context of sleepy and tired made a lot of difference in what I read each time. Let that be a lesson to me. oxox

  5. fogiv

    O, wicked words, though you’re young

    I curse you for your lying.

    You climb the throat to poison tongue,

    and leave it cold and dying.

    We grant you life that’s lyrical,

    born pure, conceived like song,

    yet you clip the wings of miracles

    and dribble out all wrong.

  6. True. But if the reader chooses, in isolation, to experience hurt and insult when the author’s past writings show no such intent, then they are choosing those feelings for themselves.

  7. princesspat

    I’ve been wanting to share this video….it’s not completely “on topic” but the ideas and use of language are fun to watch, listen to and think about.

  8. PadreJM

    to having to answer whether one loves his father or mother best . . . especially problematic for me since my relationship with my father was so complex and difficult it ended in estrangement from both parents.  I was able to effect a rapprochement with my mother after his death, but I digress.

    I have been a lover of words since childhood, begging for my eighth birthday, and dreaming of becoming a famous author.  My poor eyesight made reading difficult and slow for me, but I slogged through to the bitter end, having taught myself to read long before starting school (admittedly aided by my older sisters, and Godparents — both of whom were educators — all of whom read to me from infancy and later read with me.  We’d alternate by page or chapter reading to each other, which I was peculiar enough to prefer to watching television when it finally arrived in our small city.)

    In upper grade school and Junior High, I employed the strategy of “dumbing down” my vocabulary when socializing with my peers (and I always got along better with adults than with those my own age) because it became obvious that my “big words” were one of many factors moving me ever closer to a status of social outcast, being perceived as an intellectual snob of sorts, a classification by High School I chose to embrace, preferring it to that of Queer, a pigeonhole I was becoming stuck in (and that, too, seemed to be reinforced by my choice of words often not a part of the common lexicon of my rural community, and by my somewhat patrician sense of aesthetics) — which brings us to music.

    How I loved to sing, and still do.  And yet my relationship with song has been nearly as complicated as was my one with my father.  I am a solid baritone, so while I can sing most melodies, even when pitched as written, to do so is often literally painful.  I am usually consigned to singing harmony, which I enjoy, but is not a pursuit one can exercise alone, and for quite some time my vocation has meant a larger dose of solitude for me than for most people.  (That’s mostly fine with me, as I’m one who thrives on a good measure of “alone time.”)  Then, too, most SATB choral music has a Tenor part pitched too high for me, and a Bass line which wanders to points below my range.  I’ve learned some tricks of the trade to get by.  When singing solo, I transpose.  A shot of Schnapps, while nasty, will relax my vocal chords enough to add a few notes to each end of my range, and a benzocaine lozenge relieve the painful symptoms of any strain on them I incur.

    I am thankful that plainsong (“Gregorian” chant) is such a major part of my Order’s tradition, my prayer life, spirituality and aesthetic.  It is not written to a specific pitch.  Rather, the clef indicates the relationship of the notes to Do (or Fa) and the cantor chooses and precents the pitch ad libitum to the appropriate range for him and/or his schola (choir).

    Which brings us back to words.  I prefer to pray, especially the Mass, in Latin, for a variety of reasons.  Not the least of them is the fact that since it is not used as the lingua vulgaris anywhere on earth, it has ceased to evolve.  Each word still means precisely what it did when written.  Even common vernacular words change meanings radically over time.  Consider what is most often meant by the word “awesome” these days, which has absolutely nothing to do with inspiring awe, and what that might do to a prayer which includes a reference to the “awesome power of the Divine.”  In fact, the word “divine” in that phrase has become more than a bit ambiguous.

    Oh, my, how I have gone on.  I’m surprised none of y’all stopped me before now!  😉

  9. It is always good when it happens. I hope it happens more with future diaries posted on Moose. I like knowing what people think about things. It is interesting to see their reasons and history on things they feel are important. Asking questions for explanation of a thought is valuable. It takes time and some work and energy. But, it is worth it.

  10. Diana in NoVa

    Most enjoyable read I’ve had for some time.  Really liked the Carl Sagan quote.

    Words are the breath of life to me–I read constantly.  I’d almost rather read than eat.

  11. Diana in NoVa

    I have a hard time articulating my thoughts. 🙂

    I wouldn’t say that, girlfriend. Or, if you do, it’s not apparent from your writing. 🙂

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