This week the word is “word”. I sometimes tend to use big words. It comes from a habit of wide reading, mostly serendipity. I am given to pausing when I find an unfamiliar word, which I write down.
I then, admittedly, find a victim on whom to inflict it. My column this week is roughly two poorly-joined sections.
Christians have the perfect foil for distractors of words. In the Bible, John Chapter 1 starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We do not tout faith-biases, so I will leave it there. On a less ecumenical note, the Bee Gees sang: “It’s only words, and words are all I have to steal your heart away.”
In one of Shakespeare’s more famous plays, Polonius asks a question after watching the Prince shuffle up and down with his imperious nose stuck in a book: “What do you read, my lord?”
The prince replies: “Words, words, words.” (2:2).
How does one unpack that response? Sarcastic? All-encompassing? Dismissive? Emphatic? Confusing? Rude? The truth is, all of the above.
It is the repetition that signals indecisiveness as well as determination, which are the dramatic forces that drive this play (which I have deliberately avoided naming).
To round off this first section, there is the story of a man who stands at the foot of an escalator in a department store for a large part of an hour.
A security guard, getting suspicious, asks him whether he wants to go up?
“Yes,” he replies, “but I can’t because I don’t have a dog.”
And he pointed at the sign which said: “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.”
Do the maths.
William Empson, the English poet and critic, wrote a definitive book in 1930 on words in response to IA Richards’ New Criticism. It is called Seven Types of Ambiguity. He maintains that we tend to make utterances – use words – that sometimes cause confusion, or, as he calls it, ambiguity.
He claims that, basically, every utterance can have two meanings (or more). They are either lexical, as in a word: “Is life worth living? It depends on the liver.” Where “liver” could be an organ; or a person whose body contains the organ.
Or it can be syntactic, that is, in a sentence, as in the escalator anecdote. Or: “Jane is renting her house.” For her own use or out to somebody else?
By now my readers can see where I am going. We are dependent on words for expression, agreement, questions, entertainment, obfuscation, enlightenment – indeed for the entire spectrum of the human experience.
And yet there is so much confusion because of our tendency for ambiguity. If it is done deliberately, like for entertainment or to tantalise, it could be a good thing. Stand-up comedians use it with some alacrity.
If you have been following the Zondo Commission, which started on August 21, 2018, you will see how I have led you to the tidal waves, earth tremors and cosmic collisions that make up this wordy exercise.
If you really want to see ambiguity in action, watch these guys play out a government injunction to establish the truth about corruption, malfeasance, cronyism, dubious tenders and the whole galactic exercise that claims that the ANC are our saviours.
They are perpetual purveyors of ambiguity. In other words, they lie instinctively in their collective teeth in public and private. Where did they get the idea that they speak for everybody?
And we are expected to show respect to these charlatans?
Think again, fellows.
* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.
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