Have you ever considered just how subjective language is?
They’re simply sounds we make. As a society we have all agreed that specific sounds represent specific things.
It’s magic really.
For example, take the word couch
couch kouCH/ noun
1. a long upholstered piece of furniture for several people to sit on.
It could also be called a sofa, if it’s smaller it may be called a love seat and the larger variety are sometimes called sectionals. Which one is correct? Which one applies when?
It gets even more complicated when you look at the full definition for ‘couch’ as it can also be a verb:
couch kouCH/ verb
1. express (something) in language of a specified style.
2. lie down.
And this is a simple example!
It gets much more complex when you look at the definition of a word that represents something unseen like love or hate.
There are over 470,000 entries in the latest addition of Webster’s Dictionary.
So many options available to us, and yet, we collectively seem to gravitate toward the same subset over and over. So much of the available vocabulary goes unused in everyday conversation. This points to something…with so many words available and underutilized it would also seem that we often settle for using a word that doesn’t fully embody our intention. We fail to take the time to find the exact, specific word to represent our thoughts, feelings or intentions. I’ve discovered a significant value in taking the time to utilize the precise appropriate word, in some situations.
My first exposure to the importance of words came from Mom. I was homeschooled and Mom often made up games to help us learn, keep in mind this was in the 80’s before the internet was at our fingertips. One of my favorite games was called Synonym Gin, she wrote synonyms on playing cards and we had to collect four to get Gin and win. I remember being enthralled by how there could be so many ways to say the same thing. It was around this time that we read Julie of the Wolves, I learned that in the Eskimo’s language of Inuit there are nearly 300 words to describe what we have only 1 word for – snow. This fascinated me.
Later in my early twenties, I was exposed to the fictional society described in The Giver by Lois Lowry. The society often requests precision of language from its members. They go so far as to eradicate broad words to describe emotion. Upon reading this I found myself going back to the synonym groupings of my childhood and looking them up in a dictionary, wanting to understand the nuances, to be precise with my language.
More recently I participated in a self-development course that is fond of word studies, not only looking up a word but also exploring the etymology, the history of the word. In the course a single definition is reached, agreed upon and used for the rest of the course to ensure a common understanding. This idea of ‘redefinition’ feels juicy to me, like I’m developing a personal relationship to a word. Doing this sort of study creates a profound awareness of how often things are only true because we agree they’re true.
Word study is something I often incorporate into my own process for understanding new concepts. It’s also become integral to my process for intentionally designing my world. I did a word study on habit versus ritual when wanting to be sure I was relating to my grounding process appropriately – it’s a ritual, not a habit – and relating to it that way empowers me. I did a word study when writing my Partner a love letter, I wanted to be sure I used specific, intentional words to describe my thoughts about how our relationship developed over the previous year. I started with impressed, after research I found amazed and confounded to be most accurate.
I encourage my clients to play with what thrills them, I don’t believe in most one-size-fits all solutions, I’ll share what I do to give you a starting point just know that there’s no right way to do this, play with what works for you.
Sometimes I use an actual book, but usually I use the internet. I begin by looking a word up in a thesaurus, I’ll check to see if any of the synonyms seem to better fit my need, looking all of the contenders up in the dictionary. Sometimes I’ll look up key words from the definition as well.
Once I land on what seems to be an accurate word to use I will google it and its etymology. Sometimes when I understand the history of a word it no longer fits. For example, the word habit originally referred to garments and shifted to refer to a behavior pattern when they became heavily associated with the garments worn by clergy which wore the same garment daily for life. Now that I have a more intimate relationship with the word habit I recognize that most things I used to relate to as habits are actually practices.
Sometimes I pull different definitions together and create my own, pulling from that ‘redefinition’ idea. Sometimes I learn that there simply is not one word to exactly describe my thought, feeling, etc which is empowering in its own way.
There’s something about this process, the research, that gives me time and space to really consider something and be deliberate about how I relate to a thing, an intention, emotion etc. This practice has me really check in with myself, what exactly is it that I want to communicate? I often do this even if I’m only communicating to the various parts of myself, for an internal dialog.
I believe words are incredibly powerful. They carry weight. The history and meaning of a word impact how it is received. Using the exact correct word not only allows you to be intentional and become more aware of your thoughts and intentions, it conveys to others that you care enough to do so.
This practice of word study shows up often in my life and my work. I already gave you the example of writing a love letter to my Partner and examining my daily routine. Each new year I craft my annual intention, my declaration to the universe of what I want for myself in my life over the coming year and word study plays a critical part in this process as well.
Where could intentional use of language be applied in your world?
As with all things, moderation is needed. There are many times where it is far more valuable for me to ‘talk it out’ than to go off and do a word study. Take care to use a practice like this as a way to deepen your relationship and self awareness – not to hide out or delay action.