words words words, and how they matter

what is the matter?

The words we use affect the way we feel, the way we behave and the way we experience life. Which, in turn, can affect our material reality. Words matter.


What do you read, my lord?


Words, words, words.


What is the matter, my lord?


Between who?


I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

 It is a truism that what we are speaking, reading or writing is always ‘words’. But the ‘matter’ of those words is the point. To what meaning do they point? What are these words signifying? And choosing the right words is, I think, extremely important, not because of the words themselves, but because those pointed arrows will land in unintended places with unintended consequences if we fire them off willy-nilly.

Feet on the beach.JPG

 In ‘Hamlet’, the Prince is fond of ‘badinage’ or witty banter, using quick replies and teasing tones to irritate his family, with the aim of encouraging them to leave him alone. To anyone with a moody teenager, this may sound familiar, and ‘it’s just bants’ is probably a much-heard excuse for such behaviour.

verbal tennis

But you might not know that your moody teen is in fact displaying the learned 16th century rhetorical technique of ‘quibbling’. This doesn’t just mean ‘arguing’, but in fact, like the similar word ‘quiddity’ comes from the Latin root ‘qui’ or ‘quid’, the relative pronouns ‘who’ or ‘what’, which are used in parenthetic clarifications in legal documents. Quibbling is asking petty questions, focusing on details and defining terms precisely before getting to the topic at hand. Annoying as it might be, it was in Hamlet’s day considered the height of sophistication. A teenager who replies to the question ‘Have you cleaned your room?’ with the enigmatic reply, ‘My room is clean’ might well be employing deliberate grammatical obfuscation in order to conceal the press-ganging of a younger sibling, but this clever word-play was a favourite technique of orators, statesmen and writers like Shakespeare.

Whereas equivocation nowadays means something akin to lying, or at least being less than honest, in the sixteenth century, it was seen as a clever verbal technique in which you used one word in more than one sense. To equivocate and quibble together was an artform, well-practised by courtiers, jesters and lawyers alike. Think of the opening sequence of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where two servants play verbal tennis with one homophone, punning on its several meanings; equivocation and badinage at the same time:


Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals.


No, for then we should be colliers.


I mean, and we be in choler, we’ll draw.


Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.

Equivocations are basically puns. Gregory and Samson here are using different words, but as an aural medium, a play relies on the interplay between sound and meaning. That ‘collier’, ‘choler’ and ‘collar’ are homophones does not make them the same word. But to a listening audience, the varied spelling is invisible, and it is the layered meanings of the same sound unit [kolǝ] which resonate and create the pun.

pregnancy and poetry

Like with Hamlet, whose tricksy replies to the nosy Polonius are calculated carefully to make him appear mad, which he has decided is a good technique to get his family off his case, there is meaning in the equivocation. Polonius calls Hamlet’s replies “pregnant”, i.e. full of meaning and thinks himself an accomplished psychologist for interpreting Hamlet as lovesick. Thus the banter has worked and achieved its intended effect. Similarly, with Sampson and Gregory, the exchange is not nonsense; all three meanings are in play at once. These men are servants and load bearers for their masters, they are feeling angry, and they are more than ready to stick their neck out should they be collared by the Montagues. The words themselves and the interplay and frisson between them create a most pointed meaning.

As an English literature teacher, I used to encourage my A-Level students to equivocate vociferously with their exam questions. Their final paper set tasks such as:

“Intensity of feeling is at the heart of interesting poetry.” To what extent would you support or contradict this view?

Now clearly there was no wrong or right answer, since an argument either way was encouraged. Therefore, the task is simply an exploration, a way of saying to a well-read eighteen-year-old; ‘So, poetry then; whaddya reckon?’ But since that is a question so vast as to paralyse almost anybody into silence, the simplest technique as a way into the topic was, I always suggested, to begin with the terms of the question; to quibble, interrogate and equivocate one’s way into an argument. What sort of intensity? For whom; writer or reader? What type of feeling; emotional, physical, intellectual? What do we mean by ‘heart’; the centre, the inspiration, the impact? And what on earth is ‘interesting’ poetry? According to whom; writers, readers, critics? By the time they’d dealt with all that, they’d written 5 or 6 paragraphs, with examples from poetry they’d studied, looking at both sides of all the key terms, and could start to head towards the inevitable conclusion which was always essentially, ‘well, it depends … kind of … in a way … and yet also … isn’t poetry fascinating … goodbye’.

In my career change to part-time blogger these days, I do struggle with the concept of using keywords for SEO, as though words are separate to content. Surely the words that you use create the content you are writing! It seems entirely backwards to choose a topic to write about and then find special code words which will improve your ranking, as though those words won’t actually be what you end up writing! An article with a long-tail keyword such as ‘wilderness therapy journeys in the UK’ might rank well in a search engine, but to do so it’d need to keep saying that exact phrase, as a title, and then at least 3 times in the opening paragraphs! What of content, argument, style, structure, thematic development? How can it be better to keep repeating a phrase? I suppose that a high ranking means more clicks on a page, and once an article is clicked, whether or not it is read and found useful doesn’t matter so much as the positive metric of the click, which can be used to sell advertising space, or an affiliation. I tend to choose to rely upon the possibly aspirational idea that Google will reward interesting, unique and relevant content. We shall see…

carry on meaning

But to return to my aforementioned ‘argument’, words matter. We live into the words which we put to the concepts floating round our heads. There is a way in which all words, to greater or lesser extent, can be thought of as metaphors. The word metaphor comes from the Greek word ‘metaphero’ which means to carry over or transfer.  From the roots meta = between and phero = to carry.  So a metaphor carries a meaning from one place to another. 

We may not even see that some words and phrases are metaphors, but linguists believe that we understand the world and behave in certain ways because of those metaphors. For example, money is a metaphor. Money is called ‘money’ because it was first minted at the temple of Juno Moneta. And it isn’t really anything. If you look closely at a ten pound note, you’ll notice that it isn’t actually ‘ten pounds’; it’s a note promising to pay the person who has it ten pounds if they ever ask for it. The note itself has no intrinsic value. Yet money makes the world go round and impacts nearly all human behaviour.

The word ‘desktop’ has been carried from the physical realm of an office desk to the space on a computer where one’s working documents are stored. The word has lost the original signifier of the material world, but the term still works; it is still the place one works, with one’s technological tools within easy reach. The word has become a metaphor, which has helped to create the possibility of working from home, renting office space in arbitrary buildings, and the digital nomad culture. Our desktops are mobile now, and so are we.

 how might life be different…?

I love thinking about the practical implications of a simple change of metaphor. In English, we talk about disagreement and debate in terms of war. We ‘attack’ our opponent, and ‘defend’ our position, and ‘destroy’ the other argument. So in the House of Commons, our politicians face each other across the room, and shout back and forth, firing shots across each other’s bow What if we didn’t use metaphors of war to describe debate? What if we thought a debate was like a dance? What if we said, ‘The speaker twirled her ideas towards her partner’? What if instead of ‘attacking’ we ‘two-stepped’ or ‘tangoed’? If debating was a dance in English, rather than a war, the House of Commons would be circular, and they’d all sit together in the middle.

When we worship God, we use metaphors of height. We sing Hosannah in the highest, our churches have spires, we raise our hands when we give thanks, and we imagine Heaven as somewhere above the sky. What if our vision of God was as something tiny, round and perfect? We would worship pebbles and the beach would be our temple.

This idea is called the ‘Sapir Whorf Hypothesis’ after linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. They state that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of the different cultural metaphors of their languages. The language that they speak determines the way they think and the way that they experience the world. Words become prevailing discourse, which becomes culture, which becomes policy, which becomes law.

A much-attributed similar idea from a Texan store-owner Frank Outlaw states:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Somebody rather pedantic has pointed out that the key words of this quote; words, actions, thoughts, character and habit create the acronym ‘watch’, as a reminder of the message. But that might be a case of ‘the curtains are blue’!


saying what you mean

Whether or not your English teacher was right about the curtains, we cannot deny that the particular words we use matter. They create our mindset and shape our experience. My best example of this is a time I visited a waterfall in Costa Rica; the walk through the jungle, the sudden sighting of the water plunging out of the sky, the solo swim in the plunge pool, all of it added up to one of the most sublime experiences of my life. In the taxi on the way home, I misunderstood the Spanish-speaking driver’s question, and answered ‘no’. On replaying his sentence, I realised he’d asked me whether I’d liked the waterfall. And I’d said no, and didn’t have the language skills to explain my mistake! As he looked inquisitively at me in the mirror all the way home, I felt the experience fade and taint and warp. I’d mis-spoken, and it mattered, if only to me.

The waterfall hadn’t just been beautiful or stunning or fantastic. It had been sublime, literally. To equivocate is to find out the limits of a particular word by setting it against others that it is not. Synonyms are never purely synonymous. Hence the need for a thesaurus.

how to talk about a walk

As a literary geek, I absolutely love a thesaurus. I took a look today at the different synonyms for the word ‘walk’, as a noun and then as a verb.

Here’s the noun entry:


And as a verb:


It turns out Eskimos don’t really have 100 words for snow, but English speakers may well have 80 for walk.

I definitely set a different intention and attitude for a walk depending on whether I call it a ‘stroll’, ‘wander’ or ‘hike’, even if only in my head. I’ve always enjoyed the difference between the terms ‘amble’ and ‘ramble’. Like the second one is just a bit rougher, rockier and generally more ‘rrr’. To ‘trudge’, with its rhyming with ‘sludge’ and ‘grudge’ cannot ever be anything other than a joyless march to the finish line. And goodness knows what is the difference between ‘ambulating’ and ‘perambulating’.

There is a famous quote from Henry David Thoreau doing the rounds, where he discusses the etymology of the word ‘saunter’:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from ‘sans terre’, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.

So next time you go for a walk, choose your words carefully. Call it by a term which serves your purpose best and creates the effect you desire. Shape your reality through your language choices, and if you are enjoying a walk’n’talk with a friend, choose your discourse wisely too. Say what you mean and mean what you say. There really is no point doing anything else.