Sunday, 7 February 2010

Words Words Words


Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood,
But noble platitudes: ah, that’s a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that’s genuinely good
From one that’s base but merely has succeeded.


city of words, lithograph by Vito Acconci 1999

In the beginning was the word.

I have always had a passion for words, playing with them, making up words, finding the one word which expresses exactly what I want to say. It must be quite exasperating for others sometimes, waiting for me to finish my convoluted sentences, allowing me to go off into side alleys and dead ends, getting lost in clauses and sub clauses.  Translations often took me longer than they should have done, even when I was simply working on a technical specification.

Anyway, I’ve enjoyed it. Still do.

Communication is such a hugely important part of living and interacting; the lucky ones, who have speech, use predominantly words to do so, as well as body language and facial expression. Nowadays, of course, many of us sit in front of computers, typing words on a word-processor, words we hope make sense to others.

“I have something to tell you”.
I have something to tell you. These words. Dread words. Chill-words. Words no middle-aged wife wishes to hear uttered numbly, yet with a ghastly hopeful smile, by her middle-aged husband.

When I read this paragraph in Joyce Carol Oates’ novel  ‘Middle Age’,
recently, I thought of the many ways the word ‘WORD’ itself, as in, word, n. a unit of spoken language, (etc.), can convey many different meanings, depending on how it is used and the phrase in which it appears.

You can be word-perfect, you can paint a word-picture, set a word-puzzle and enjoy word-play. You can produce a word-salad or be a word-splitter. You can also be a word-smith.

And then there are the many phrases, My Word, there are a lot of them!

Believe me, I give you my word on that! My word is my bond whereas his word cannot be taken for gospel; he hasn’t a good word to say for anybody. The word is that he puts words into your mouth before he takes the words right out of it again. I’ve been having words with him about this. I said “ I want a word with you,” which he didn’t like very much. But I carried on, “a word to the wise”, I said, “ a word in your ear”.  “Fair words butter no parsnips”, I said, “that’s not the word for it”; “You may be a man of many words, but I will never take your word for it”, I said. “I simply cannot take you at your word, in fact, I can hardly get a word in edgeways with you”.

“In a word”, I said, “you break your word”.  At which he became very angry and said “ One day I will make you eat your words”!

Let a poet have the last word:


Goodbye, words.
I never liked you,
Liking things and places, and
Liking people best when their mouths are shut.

Go out and lose yourself in a jabbering world,
Be less than nothing, a vacuum
Of which words will beware
Lest by suction, your only assertion, you pull them in.

For that I like you, words,
Self-destroyed, self-dissolved
You grow true.
To what? You tell me, words.

Run and I’ll follow,
Never to catch you up.
Turn back, and I’ll run.
So goodbye. 

Michael Hamburger


  1. I have no words!!! What a fabulous read. I nominate this post for an award - The Wondrous Word Use Award. Bravo Friko. I depart to blanket myself in your words with a re-read. I will probably comment again with more specific reactions, but for now I am dumbstruck with the wizardry of your post.

  2. Funny how many of us read, write and speak words without really giving them much thought. Much is made of clever/memorable phrases, but what of the building blocks?

    By the way, have you ever spoken a word over and over, until it either sounds ridiculous or ceases to maintain any connection with its meaning?

  3. Thank you and bravo! What a pleasure to read this post, and to see that picture, too.

    I had not previously know about that parsnips expression, but like it very much. I hope that you will continue your search for the perfect word. You've encouraged me to emulate your explorations.

    I also smiled as I scrolled to the end of the final poem, and saw just below, that handsome Benno, who needs not a word to communicate.

    Best wishes. xo

  4. friko you are so clever and insightful! it's always so rewarding to visit you! i have loved words all my life - the dilemma i face with them has always been that i use them in a lexicon of my own designing. that sometimes makes it difficult for others to understand what i am saying. there are depths beneath words - lines of connection that make their juxtaposition mean something very specific to me. softening those connections seems untruthful to me. what to do what to do?!!! steven

  5. Your ninth paragraph is a verbal Flight of the Bumblebee!

  6. I am nearly, but not quite wordless. Friko, you delight and amaze me with your nimble, agile, brainy writing.

    A long-ago friend and I used to meet once a week in a little Italian restaurant to discuss, anything and everything. The greatest pleasure of our friendship was to use words well, and our conversations were so stimulating that I sometimes felt darts of electicity shooting from my fingertips.

    I laughed at WHA's pithy poem - or did I wince a little bit....?

  7. We used to have word of the day at work - emailed to us by - that was always fun. I too enjoy word play. One of my fsve words, not that you can easily use it in ordinary speech, is "panduriform" - meaing 2fiddle-shaped".

  8. I saw a mock advertisement for Microsoft Word that pictured gangstas striking poses and scowling. The caption read: "Yo. Words 'n shit."

    Love the Auden and Hamburger poetry (and your word-play!)

  9. Such a great post. Posts about words warm my little English-teachery heart.

  10. I have always loved words too, but do not have the vocabulary that you are able to so brilliantly demonstrate. Maybe I need to read more poetry. I only have a couple of books of poetry in my collection, The Prophet and Thomas Merton's, When the Trees Say Nothing. Wonderful post. Blessings

  11. Oh, my word!
    My words are birds.
    Where do they land?
    How are they heard?

    Thanks, Friko.

  12. Entertaining and clever post. Nice read while sitting in my daughters house waiting for them to clear the roads.

  13. Words, I use them to clarify. I use them to obscure. The idea that I could ever use them with your skill in a language not my own is beyond me.

  14. Bonnie - Blimey, word got round fast!

    MartinH - no, can't say I have. Might give it a go next time I am out in the wilds with Benno. He loves me and won't think that I'm an idiot.

    Frances - words fail me! that's a lot of praise.

    steven - what to do? carry on; I never have any problem understanding your words. For those who love words, playing with them comes naturally and they also recognize a kindred spirit.

    June - a byword for a tone poem?

    Deborah - I also winced just a touch when I read WHA bitchy little snippet. But then word was that he was good at bitchy words.

  15. Argent - now there's a word for a wordzzle - panduriform - what would the object look like? You'll have to explain a bit. I have a couple of fiddles in the house and I'll have to tell Beloved to see if he knows what to do with them to make a panduriforms.

    Mark Kerstetter - Some ads are actually funny. Laconic, better than twee.

    Fran Hill - ah, the thought of pleasing your little English-teachery heart makes me come over all warm and weepy.

    QMM - You are too modest, you don't do too badly. But it is a good idea to read as much as you can and poetry is something I just love. I read it for pleasure and I also belong to a poetry group. It is so very rewarding.

    Dan Gurney - A wordsmith! Thank you for visiting, do call again.

    Tabor - Hope you have been dug out by now. Otherwise, there are always words to read, in papers and books and on blogs.

    mollygolver - thank you

    elizabethm - Modesty forbids that I answer that, except to say thank you.

  16. So, I take it you're a Scrabble fan, huh? I challenge you to a game. Still a novice, but with a couple of victories under my belt.

    No, seriously now, what a gem of a post. I loved reading because like you I am in love with words and the power of them. Many, many thanks for such a beautiful column. Bonnie is right. You ought to get a prize for this one.

    Greetings from London.

  17. A very clever post, showing how a few words can open up a whole tract of country - and thanks for reminding me that it's time I went back to The Four Quartets!

  18. How clever you are, Friko! I too love words and this was a fun post to read.

  19. What an entertaining post - well said.

  20. A Cuban in London - Scrabble? Haven't played for years. Loved it when I did. I'm too busy thinking of posts and visiting other bloggers to play at anything much these days. Even reading is coming a poor second. Evenings just aren't as long as they used to be.

    Dave King - Never forget about Eliot! I may not understand much of what he has to say but he says it so beautifully.

    Shattered - Thank You Shattered. I know how well you can use words and to what effect.

    ChrisH - Thank you Chris.

  21. What a delightful post! I thnk a lot about words -- words that are innocent in one context and wounding in another and the treacherous No Man's Land in between.

  22. Too often my words have been "a foot in the mouth" So many words I wish I could take back.

  23. Vicki Lane - And isn't it fun to experiment with them.

    karin - It does help to think before one utters, I wish I had remembered that at all times.

    robert - Danke vielmals!

  24. A little haiku

    Friko combines words
    We all marvel at her skill
    A prize winning blog!

  25. Mmmmm . . . thanks for the lovely blog, and especially for the Auden quote, Friko. A word of warning there alright!


Comments are good, I like to know what you think of my posts. I know you'll keep it civil.