The Shifting Nature of Words

The Shifting Nature of Words

Language is a living entity. It spawns new words and methods of interaction as we continue to move forward into an uncertain future. It prunes itself of outdated terms and repurposes the old. This constant flux is key to the survival of any language. Without the ability to adapt it would grow stagnant and eventually be abandoned because of its inflexibility.

What I’ve come to realize over the past year is how my relationship with language has shifted. How my unconscious rigidity has aged my communication in unforeseen ways and how time has imbued other words with an unexpected richness. Being a writer, language is one of my favorite abilities, so it’s sad when I noticed how I had let it lapse. I hadn’t been trimming my archaic terms or diving into shiny new dialects. Sometimes I wielded the age of my words like a club, fiercely hammering the difference in generations they represented. It was a reflexive action, an attempt to comfort myself with the familiarity of my words instead of pushing myself to stretch beyond my linguistic inertia.

A passing reference to techno during a conversation with a friend really drove the point home when I was called out for not only using a much older term, but one that placed me firmly in the 90’s. I had understood that language could recall a specific time period, which is a tool I often leveraged on purpose, yet this was the first time I had seen an unconscious “time lock” in my own vocabulary. It was a sobering moment that made me analyze my go-to word choices.

I have certain words and phrases that I love to deploy like most of us do. Clever uses of wordplay that have become darlings or verbal tics that are now borderline shtick. Making someone laugh or smile in a conversation is a great joy of mine, but devolving into a parody of myself with the same old routine is not the kind of person I want to become. So now I must burn down the forest of my vocabulary to allow the rich undergrowth to sprout anew.

Another way I’ve seen my relationship with language shift is in the meaning of words I hold sacred. My singular tattoo is a Latin phrase:

Verba Volant, Scripta Manent

Roughly translated it means – Spoken words fly away, Written ones remain.

I got the tattoo four months after I was officially in remission from Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The phrase and its permanent home on my skin were to serve as a reminder of what my legacy in life should be. At the time, I had considered my predilection for conversation, with anyone and everyone, as something immaterial and a distraction. It was my written word—the short stories, articles, novels—that would serve as the record of my existence.

It has been five years that I’ve been cancer free and every day I wake up to see the tattoo on my body. The phrase has always been the same, but my understanding of what it means has matured. To consider one half of the equation as unimportant is to deny an integral part of who I am. My spoken words will never be etched in stone yet the power they possess is even greater than the words I leave on the page.

Many of my friends have dealt with darkness in their lives and we’re all reaching the age when physical and emotional ordeals pop up with more frequency. Unexpected deaths, sudden illnesses, crisis of confidence, and so on. This is when I recognized that my spoken words did fly. They supported, lifted, and comforted my loved ones in their times of need. They gave them the courage to keep going or made them look inward with a new perspective.

I hadn’t understood the impact of my words because they came from a place of love, naturally and without pretense, so to me they always felt normal. It took the thanks of my friends and their honest appreciation of our conversations to help me come to terms with this undervalued facet of myself.

I no longer look at my tattoo and think one half is a caution and the other is a commandment. Now I see a complete path to an authentic self who accepts all his gifts.


Photo © Gabriel Novo


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