The Great Word Laundering, or: Is Language Like a Cast Iron Skillet?

Today I had a thought: what if, for a day, every word spoken, written, and thought was value-neutral? Well, I thought it was a very cool thought. One friend replied that such a day would be “terse and unremarkable”, another simply “chaos”. Value-charged words, those.

Imagine it: the laundering of every word, the stripping and scrubbing and bleaching that I can’t put nearly as well as Aldous Huxley because I can’t put anything as well as Aldous Huxley:

The problem is: how to love? (Once more the word is suspect—greasy from being fingered by generations of Stigginses. There ought to be some way of dry-cleaning and disinfecting words. Love, purity, goodness, spirit—a pile of dirty linen waiting for the laundress.1

Of course, his motivation (or rather, Anthony Beavis’s motivation, though Eyeless in Gaza is unabashedly autobiographical) is not the same as mine. Where Huxley/Beavis is frustrated by what he sees as the dirtying of words that is the result, specifically, of ill use by “generations of Stigginses”—and who are these Stigginses?—I find myself intrigued by the dirtying of words that results, simply, from use. In short, I find myself intrigued by the dirtying of words where “dirtying” is used…wait for it…in its value-neutral sense.

As you can probably imagine, the thought didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve been making a spectacular mess of expressing myself lately. Hence: the shriveled fig that is this blog. (Don’t take it personally; my notebook and journal are equally shriveled.) I am certain this is the result of the very fact of my not writing, the bore and irony of which is in no way lost on me. I seem, over the past two months especially (and for reasons that I’ve speculated on but that haven’t yet yielded to my understanding), to have lost my sense of how I come across to others. It’s like flying blind through my relationships. And like any kind of flying blind, it’s bloody terrifying. More and more I find myself not saying something, not expressing some thought or idea or feeling—not even writing it down, which is the most alarming part—because I’m unsure of how it will be interpreted. And not just unsure, but literally afraid.

How I come across and how I am interpreted is, in large part if not wholly, my responsibility. Part of managing that responsibility is cultivating self-knowledge, knowledge of others, and of the points of entry between those two. To communicate well with someone is to understand how to translate a thought or an idea such that they understand and can grasp the full meaning of that thought or idea, and to do the same kind of work when they express something to you, but in reverse of course. The kind and amount of translating is unique to every relationship, and I do think that part of coming to know another person is to cultivate a shared fluency in the translation that occurs between you, a deeper and more subtle familiarity with what happens to the meaning of words in the space between you. To hear, with greater granularity and with more care, what they mean.

And so I had this little fantasy about a hard reset to erase the myriad assumptions and approximations we make every day about what other people mean and what they take us to mean. A cleaning of the slate such that when you say something to me, I don’t hear the voice of every other person in my life who has said that same thing, or something that sounds like that thing, to me before. That when you say something to me, I don’t interpret the emotional response that I have to all those other voices as an emotional response that I’m having to you or to anything that you’ve said or done. But this misses something crucial, that maybe language is like a cast iron skillet. Not even maybe; language is definitely like a cast iron skillet. Every time we put a word in the skillet that is language with some other words, both those words and the skillet are richer for it. They take on a depth of meaning that they didn’t have before but that they will carry forward with them forever, to inform and to be informed by more words put into the skillet.

That’s how skillets work: you have to season them with care and you can’t wash them with soap. Every time you use it, you’re adding flavor that it will in turn add to the next thing you make. To really get carried away with my metaphor, masters of language dirty up words in the sense that they add something to them that doesn’t exist in the value-neutral or raw form of those words, and what the words taste like when they’re done with them is what distinguishes masters of language.

The flavor of each word, the meaning of each word, is thus never not building upon itself. Language is never not informed by the dynamics, the flavors of its words, and is never not informing those dynamics and flavors in turn.

I fantasized about the Great Word Laundering in spite of myself, because I know it’s an intellectually fraudulent enterprise to try to unbraid  how words are used from what they mean. I am in fact grateful that it’s an intellectually fraudulent enterprise. One of my favorite things about words and meaning, after all, is that to unbraid them is to destroy the very thing that we want so deeply to understand about them. (It is in this very real sense that the latter emerges from, and informs, the former, is it not?)  But the reason I found the thought so cool was that I think that if, even for one day only, every word, thought, and idea was value-neutral, we would have the opportunity to bring fresh ears and fresh emotions to bear on our relationships. We would bring, in other words, more clarity and attention, less judgement and assumption. We would hear, really hear.

I take, as analogy (and only half-jokingly, as evidence): Drachten. Drachten is a town in Holland that removed all of its traffic lights and stop signs. In other words, it laundered its streets of all the information that had accumulated, all of the information on the basis of which drivers made assumptions about their behavior and the behavior of others. Zero fatal accidents occur on the streets of Drachten, and this makes sense when you think about it: the cars proceed more slowly, more carefully, because the rules of the road are more ambiguous.

The architect of Drachten’s roads, Hans Monderman, explains it thus: “A wide road with a lot of signs is telling a story. It’s saying, go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.” 

I think there’s something to be learned here about how we communicate: that wherever assumptions are being made, damage can be done.

  1. Eyeless in Gaza, p. 11. For the record: that unrequited parenthesis is the masterful work of Aldous Huxley.