We’d have a pretty grim time of it if there weren’t those things we call “WORDS.” It’s possible to communicate using gestures — American Sign Language is a terrific tool for the deaf community — but not many of the rest of us are conversant in it. Looks don’t go very far as a communication alternative to words — you can easily get a few points across but they would be useless as instructions in how to build an automobile.
I had a comment recently from a reader who didn’t care for the fact that I let some typos go, and that I occasionally misuse the noble apostrophe. I’m afraid I blew off the comment — not because I don’t love our language but more as a function of knowing who I am and knowing that, yes, I could be more diligent, but after publishing a couple monthly journals I have also learned that typos are not all that uncommon in printed matter. Even the New York Times makes them and from my personal experience a staff of 6 editors reading the content of a small journal are still no guarantee that all six of us aren’t going to miss something. I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.
A long time ago one of my corporate teachers — meaning the guy training me on a new job — made a lasting point by telling me that “if you want to be understood, you have to make yourself understandable.” There is no shortcut. Being understood is entirely the responsibility of the speaker.
When someone says, “NO, you misunderstood me,” that’s just an excuse for their having chosen the wrong words at the wrong time with the wrong person to convey what they intended. Being understood is always the responsibility of the speaker, never of the listener.
And it’s a big unless…
Sometimes one’s intention is not to create understanding but to provoke thought.
[Let me insert here, I fully understand
that a misused possessive apostrophe
is probably not going to fit the bill in
this illustration — just in case the
original complainant is listening]
If you are paying attention to the news here in the U.S. you are keenly aware that telling the honest truth is by no means a guarantee that people will accept what is said as true. Conversely, lying is not necessarily recognized as an avoidance of truth — as is also easy to observe in the mainstream media. People will believe what they choose to believe until such time as they are comfortable giving up their current accepted thought in favor of something else — regardless of the source.
There are truths that are not ready to be accepted. There are people who are not ready to change. When faced with either you have two choices: sit down and shut up because talking is futile; or say whatever you think may help or whatever you think may speed the time before an idea is ready to be accepted.
We saw this at work in numerous times here in this country, but let me mention just a few. Brave men and women spoke and suffered physically over the contention that all men are created equal and deserve equal protection under the law. Similarly, brave men and women spoke, walked picket lines, and lost jobs over the unfair labor practices and wages that rich men paid their workers. The Civil Rights movement and the Labor Union movement both accomplished great things — but only when the society was ready to hear, and more than that…. ready to listen and act.
I came across this statement recently:
Forming grammatically correct sentences is for the normal individual the prerequisite for any submission to social laws. No one is supposed to be ignorant of grammaticality; those who are belong in special institutions. The unity of language is fundamentally political.
I’d have to say that theoretically I agree. As a society we expect people to be well spoken, to use our language as it was intended and when they don’t we are apt to discount their point of view. The best example of this is the way white American have treated black Americans who speak in the vernacular of the street. We, meaning us white Americans, have laughed at their ignorance and made fun of their words — all the while refusing to hear the message those words contained. We have done the same with our First Nations as well; they too spoke a different language than the ones that came with us from our countries of origin and their ideas, like the ideas of black Americans were different than ours. We haven’t allowed either group at the table of polite conversation to discuss how we have wronged them. Periodically events take a turn and it looks as if we might; and then life goes back to the way it had been with only minimal change.
I don’t know if you are familiar with Fernando Pessoa, he was a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language. If you are unfamiliar with his work I urge you to look him up.
Anyway… he had this to say about being understood…
Anyone who wants to be understood will never know the delight of being understood, because this happens only to the complex and misunderstood; simple souls, the ones whom other people can understand, never feel a desire to be understood.
I think Pessoa knew what he was talking about. If you understand that you are not going to be understood you undertake to do something else. To remain silent would be unending agony; instead you broadcast seed that can take root at the right time. You say what will be misunderstood so that in time it can be understood and more — it can be recognized that the idea is not new; it may have existed for dozens or hundreds of years; people simply were not ready for it.
It’s easy to see this happening with young minds going through the education process. When exposed to the right influence at the right time, one particular person will react to words that have lain unheeded on a page for — literally — centuries, and find inspiration. Or they will find the scratchings of a scientist before them and recognize in those annotations the foundation for an entirely new formula or process. Something unready to be understood at the time it was written jumps off the page as if it had been fully formed in it’s own day and provides inspiration for an entirely new generation, or even a new world.
I hate writing about politics, but I know it’s important to talk about it; to broadcast seed. I know that there are better writers, more informed sources, more diligent activists. What I don’t see is them saying, learning, or doing anything. So I do what I can. I say what I must. I stutter in my speech, and I wish I could say it better, but I do not let my self-consciousness deter me. If I don’t do it this way I know I won’t do it at all, so I continue. As the expression would have it, “warts and all.”
That expression “warts and all” is said to derive from Oliver Cromwell’s instructions to the painter Sir Peter Lely, when commissioning a painting.
At the time of the alleged instruction, Cromwell was Lord Protector of England. Lely had been portrait artist to Charles I and, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he was appointed as Charles II’s Principal Painter in Ordinary.
Lely’s painting style was, as was usual at the time, intended to flatter the sitter. Royalty in particular expected portraits to show them in the best possible light, if not to be outright fanciful. Lely’s painting of Charles II shows what was expected of a painting of a head of state in the 17th century. It emphasizes the shapely royal calves – a prized fashion feature at that time.
Cromwell did have a preference for being portrayed as a gentleman of military bearing, but was well-known as being opposed to all forms of personal vanity. This ‘puritan Roundhead’ versus ‘dashing Cavalier’ shorthand is often used to denote the differences in style of the two opposing camps in the English Commonwealth and subsequent Restoration. It is entirely plausible that he would have issued a ‘warts and all’ instruction when being painted and it is unlikely that Lely would have modified his style and produced the ‘warts and all’ portrait of Cromwell unless someone told him to.