What’s in a word

By Jay Jamison

I was told that someone out front wanted to speak with me. At the time I was pouring coffee grounds into the basket of a coffeemaker in the kitchen of Applebee’s on Morton Avenue, during a Rotary Club breakfast fundraiser. I went out into the dining area and was met by a distinguished looking man. He said he wanted to meet me, and that he admired my columns in The Source, as well as columns I’d written elsewhere. I was expecting possibly congratulations on the fundraiser or something like that, certainly not praise for my writing. I admit that the out-of-the-blue compliment was great ego food for me. It colored the rest of my day and caused me to reflect on the power of words—not mine, especially, but any words.

We hear them and read them, and they can cause elation as well as despondency. Words can cause fights and end fights. Sometimes a good joke or aphorism can defuse a tense situation. The great storyteller, Abraham Lincoln, was a master at the craft. I’m often amazed by people who come up with just the right words for any given situation, a talent I confess that often fails me. Of course, words to be intelligible don’t just appear randomly, they are formed into sentences that have meaning for us. I’m no grammarian or stylist, but the more I think of the power of language, which is composed of words, the harder it is to explain the phenomena with which we are so intimately acquainted.

Some pet dogs can develop an understanding of a few commands, rebukes and praises, but we have no evidence that they ever discuss among themselves the qualities of various dog foods, or the wisdom of past generations. In fact, they don’t seem to discuss anything at all. I can’t recall ever witnessing a dog expressing to another, the dog equivalent of “good boy!” for a job well-done. We seem to be the only creatures, so far discovered, that can have discussions, not only about a finite set of issues, but on an indefinite variety of topics.

I used to throw a foam Nerf brick at the TV, whenever a politician, commentator or analyst said something that was particularly annoying to me. I can’t remember what happened to my trusty old Nerf brick, maybe I just wore it out in frustration. Nerf bricks may be just the needed anger management TV accessory, for those of us aggrieved by the words of political figures, commentators and analysts.

Fortunately for some, I don’t deliver my words via TV. If I write something offensive or annoying, you can just rip up the page. Some years ago, I considered starting a line of Jay Jamison dartboards, to be sold to any and all who may find my scribblings offensive; thus, giving my detractors a positive way to channel their anger, while providing me with a possible new source of income.

Words can be hurtful and harmful, and sometimes they are as powerful as a loaded gun. On the other hand, they can bring joy, encouragement and satisfaction, where other methods fail. So, to the gentleman who offered me unexpected praise last week … thanks for the kind words.

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